By Sophie Gorman Oriani
School and work weren’t the only things that went virtual in Hyattsville during the pandemic — the courts did too. The court system initially provided both audio and video access to proceedings, and currently provides audio access.
Some citizens think that virtual proceedings should continue to be offered as we move forward into the new normal. At the July 19 and Aug. 2 city council meetings, members debated sending a letter to the Circuit Court Chief Judge Sheila Tillerson Adams supporting permanent virtual access. At both meetings, Hyattsville residents who volunteer as court watchers spoke up in support of virtual access.
The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution establishes a right to a public trial for criminal proceedings. Prior to the pandemic, courts were open to the public in person with a few exceptions involving children and specific privacy and security concerns. Many courtrooms did not allow filming, though members of the public could generally request audio recordings or transcripts.
During the pandemic, live virtual access to the same hearings that used to be accessible in person has made it easier for volunteers who watch court.
Many states and counties have court watching organizations, which train and organize volunteer court watchers. Locally, the organization Courtwatch PG primarily watches bond hearings in Prince George’s County. It is part of Life after Release, a prison abolition organization in the greater D.C. area founded and led by formerly incarcerated Black women.
Court watchers sometimes observe proceedings to support a particular person. Generally, though, they are there to watch for what Hyattsville resident Caitlin Fitzpatrick called “abuses of power, egregious acts — anything that strikes us as a flag.” If court watchers note something that seems off, such as a bail set unfairly high or a report that may point to police brutality, they write a letter to a relevant authority.
Fitzpatrick, who got involved in court watching during the pandemic, was one of about half a dozen residents who spoke to the city council in support of virtual court access. She told the story of a Hyattsville resident, whose bail was set at $500 with a 10% option, meaning he had to pay $50 to be released prior to his trial. He could not afford to pay $50, so the judge required him to stay in jail, rather than reducing his bail. “Clearly it was not a very serious crime if the bail was set at only $500,” Fitzpatrick noted.
At the July 19 meeting, Councilmember Robert Croslin (Ward 2) expressed concern that virtual court hearings could make it much easier to record sensitive court proceedings from home. Councilmember Edouard Haba (Ward 4), who is one of the sponsors of the motion to send the letter to Tillerson Adams, noted that a judge can decide to close a hearing to protect the privacy of those involved. Some councilmembers, including Daniel Peabody (Ward 4) and Sam Denes (Ward 1), expressed a desire for more information about the potential risks.
Edwuan Whitehead, of Courtwatch PG, told the city council that volunteers with the organization have watched approximately 150 Hyattsville residents, most of whom were minorities, in court proceedings over the past six months. “We want to continue this judicial transparency as long as we can possibly have it,” said Whitehead.
On Aug. 2, the council discussed a revised letter clarifying that the judge would retain the ability to close sensitive proceedings. While most councilmembers supported the motion, Ben Simasek (Ward 3) suggested amending the motion language to remove the specific reference to access for observers. Even with this amendment, Croslin voted against the motion. “I do applaud folks who are pushing for more transparency in government,” he said, but added he had consulted with several attorneys, including the city attorney, who were all personally opposed to the motion.
Currently, only audio access is provided for the court hearings. “We’re just trying to keep the access that we have,” Fitzpatrick said, although she is hoping the courts will restore video access as well, which would allow court watchers to see body language and other nonverbal communication. The letter from the city council also expressed a desire to restore video access.
“To me [virtual court access] is not different than body cams on police, you know — it just gives an extra set of eyes,” said Fitzpatrick. “I think a lot of people would be very surprised at some of the things that go on in the courtroom.”
Sign up for a Wednesday orientation at courtwatchpg.com to get involved in court watching.