Arlington Municipal Court to implement virtual court pilot program amid COVID-19 outbreak

Attorneys can now conduct virtual pleas amid the coronavirus outbreak for defendants in Tarrant County jails.

The option of a video plea, which is free and coordinated through Zoom, focuses on helping the jail population and addressing concerns attorneys may have with meeting face-to-face in county jails and courtrooms, said Robb Catalano, a Tarrant County Criminal Courts judge.

A majority of attorneys likely prefer the in-person pleas; however, that may change as the health situation changes, Catalano said.

“If [it] gets worse, we have to have an option available to get the cases in jail taken care of in a safe and efficient manner,” Catalano said. “And that's where the video conference will come in.”

Along the efforts of limiting foot traffic at courthouses, the Arlington Municipal Court implemented a virtual court pilot program Wednesday.

Defendants that have citations with the city can now have procedural access to a judge through Zoom and have a virtual walk-in court session.

To conduct a virtual plea in the county, defense attorneys would have to negotiate a plea beforehand with the criminal district attorney’s office by either phone or email then communicate the offer to their client, Catalano said.

Once a mutual deal is reached, the defendant’s case will be set for a plea and a video conference will be scheduled, he said. Plea paperwork can be created by the prosecutor and sent to the defense attorney, where they can review and sign electronically.

On the day of the plea, the court bailiff will deliver the paperwork to the defendant and have them sign it, Catalano said.

“If there was any last-minute details that needed to be explained that weren't already explained, there is a function on zoom to where the lawyer can have a private conversation with his client,” Catalano said.

Ideally, all details should be covered before the plea is set, he said.

Attorneys and prosecutors could be in their office, at home or in the courtroom. Defendants could be in jail or in front of the judge. Judges could be on the bench or in their office — each situation will be different and depends on the parties, Catalano said.

But both sides will have to agree to a video plea.

Russell Rowe, a criminal defense attorney in Fort Worth and one of the first attorneys to successfully conduct a video plea, said it ran smoothly.

Rowe, who was at his home office at the time of the plea, said the process only took about five minutes — about the same time it takes in person.

He has done three video pleas so far and has more scheduled for the upcoming weeks, he said.

“They're just going over the same processes. It just happens to be that we're staring into a camera instead of talking in person,” Rowe said.

The only thing that has changed, other than being at home, is keeping a copy of the plea paperwork in his files for archive purposes, he said. The Zoom video conference is also recorded.

However, one thing that could be improved is communication with inmates in the jail, he said.

“We're now getting more [video pleas] done and I'm getting positive feedback — but the question still remains: how do we get ahold of our clients to let them know the plea offers?” Rowe said. “Unfortunately, that's where it's fallen short.”

Phillip Hall is a criminal defense attorney in Fort Worth and specializes in cases where defendants face criminal charges and have immigration issues.

Hall, who is not working from home and is having to go to the court almost every day, said he is seeing many colleagues choose the video plea option. Like Rowe, he agrees it’s like a standard plea.

But a video plea loses the element of human touch, he said, which is important to him since many of his clients are undocumented and might not understand the criminal justice system.

However, Hall said he understands that the courts in Tarrant County are doing what they can to come up with solutions for clients, he said. Attorneys, judges and prosecutors will still do their jobs because they’re essential.

“We're in this together to try to figure out the best way to effectively represent our clients without adding additional exposure or risk to our lives and our families,” Hall said


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