The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa replaced an older video conferencing system with a more robust and flexible solution, says Jay Larson, court technology specialist.

Dec 05 2011

Conferencing Brings Order in Court

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa decreases travel between sites with high-definition video arraignments.

People being arraigned in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa may feel as if they’ve stepped into an episode of Court TV. The Southern District’s deployment of interactive video systems has made it possible for the court to host hearings between first-time defendants and federal magistrates on high-definition monitors.

The district connected its courtrooms in Council Bluffs, Davenport, and Des Moines, Iowa, via two-way video, allowing judges to hold hearings across the southern half of the state without leaving their current location. The nine judges rotating among courtrooms previously spent a lot of time commuting, says Jay Larson, court technology specialist. Thanks to a Polycom video conferencing deployment, they can now keep their gavels and robes in one place.

“We don't have a sitting judge in Council Bluffs,” says Vickie Rule, a case manager and courtroom deputy. “When someone is arraigned in federal court, rather than make a judge drive over here from Des Moines or Davenport, we just set up a hearing using the video conferencing equipment.”

Rule uses the system anywhere from a few times a week to more than once a day. “It really depends on how much case activity is happening during any given week,” she says.

Technology Enhancements

Iowa’s Southern District has been using video conferencing for more than a decade via the Iowa Communications Network, a statewide fiber-optic network linking schools and agencies. But that system was less than ideal. The ICN required judges to enter a tiny video booth in the basement of the courthouse, the cameras could not be moved, and bandwidth and usage fees cost the district close to $2,000 a month, says Larson.

In late 2008, the district implemented Polycom HDX 8004 video conferencing systems connected to dual 46-inch flat panel TVs. One monitor displays the judge, while the other displays prosecutors, defendants and their attorneys, plaintiffs or witnesses. Each $15,000 system could be placed inside a courtroom and deliver high-quality audio and video over standard broadband connections, saving thousands in bandwidth costs.

The system can be placed anywhere in the courtroom and controlled remotely, allowing users to zoom in or pan. It can also connect participants in multiple locations at the same time, making it much more flexible, says Larson.

“We’ve conducted hearings where the judge was in Davenport and everyone else was in Council Bluffs, or where the defendant and judge were in Des Moines and the U.S. counsel was in Council Bluffs,” Larson adds.

The district has also used the Polycom gear for remote court reporting and interpretation, remote witness testimony and to display evidence. Outside legal proceedings, the jurisdiction has conducted staff meetings and continuing legal education classes over the video conferencing system. “Any combination you can think of, we’ve probably done it,” Larson says.

Although a judge isn’t likely to use the Polycom system to conduct an entire trial, says Larson, it’s perfect for an initial appearance or a detention hearing. Those proceedings typically last about 15 minutes, so setting up a hearing using the old system would have taken longer than the hearing itself, he says. “It’s also more convenient for defendants because it allows them to see a judge sooner.”

Quality Counts

The adoption of video conferencing by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa mirrors a larger worldwide trend, says Robert Mason, a research director for Gartner. The research firm forecasts that the two-way video market will grow by nearly 20 percent annually through 2013. Large organizations are embracing telepresence as part of their unified communications strategy, he says, spurred in part by the desire to cut travel costs but also because interactive video is finally ready for prime time.

“Customers want three things from their video experience: video quality, ease of use and repeatability,” Mason explains. “With telepresence, enterprises finally have quality of experience with interactive video they can hang their hats on.”

While dedicated systems such as the Polycom HDX 8004 are significantly more expensive than PC-based video sharing systems, they’re also more practical for handling multiple participants, and more reliable. Ensuring a high-quality experience each time is critical when dealing with high-level participants, Mason adds. “The people in the video room are usually very expensive resources who have zero time for anything that doesn’t work,” he says.

For Larson, Polycom’s push-button simplicity gave him one less thing to worry about.

Organizations that plan to implement video conferencing by 2013

SOURCE: 2011 CDW•G Video Conferencing Straw Poll

“I hate the ‘walk of shame,’ when something in the courtroom isn’t working, the judge calls me in to fix it, and everyone’s eyes are on me,” Larson says. “That happens all the time with laptops, when an attorney wants to present electronic evidence but forgets to press F11 to display on an external monitor.”

Aside from some minor tweaks to audio settings, Larson says the Polycom system has been plug-and-play.

For Rule, her courtroom technology role is part producer.

“They’re real-life situations unfolding in real time right in front of you on TV,” she says. “Anyone watching one of those hearings would be reminded of reality TV. The biggest difference is we don’t have to do anything to boost the ratings.”

<p>Scott Sinklier</p>

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