San Diego County Superior Court
The new San Diego County Superior Court in downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

The San Diego County court system—like nearly everything else—was initially rattled by the COVID-19 crisis. After the courts came to a screeching halt in mid-March, the legal community scrambled to find alternative means of handling criminal cases while still minimizing the risk of exposure to everyone involved. Now that we have seen a bit of what our courts can do remotely, there is no reason to stop post-pandemic.

In the wake of the coronavirus, some criminal proceedings are being held on four-way screens, with the judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and inmates all videoconferencing in from separate places. As of this week, some courtrooms will also have a YouTube livestreaming option for public viewing. For procedural issues, the courts have become more flexible about accepting filings, requests, and questions by email or phone. And while it may have been a rocky transition to start, San Diego now has a unique opportunity to truly modernize its criminal justice system.

This isn’t to say that everything should be done remotely. When you think of a criminal case, you probably picture lawyers negotiating charges, arguing motions, and questioning witnesses on the stand. As defense attorneys, these types of in-person communication are some of the most vital tools at our disposal to advocate for our clients.

But so much of that involves behind-the-scenes procedural steps that can be a black hole for a lawyer’s time and energy. Going to court to pour through old case files, filing motions with the clerk, and resetting hearing dates so witnesses are available are all necessary evils. However, the time it takes to do that in person could be better spent actually researching the case, reviewing discovery, or meeting with the client to develop their defense.

Pre-coronavirus, if you went to the Criminal Business Office of the downtown courthouse during normal operating hours you would find a scene not unlike the DMV (complete with the occasional shouting and tears). Of the dozens of people milling around, many of the attorneys there might just need to schedule a motion hearing or pull a docket or two from an old case’s court file. Many members of the public may just need old paperwork or a new deadline to finish their DUI classes. Handling these small issues virtually can save those people the inconvenience of coming to court, while also streamlining the matters that must be done face-to-face and drastically reducing traffic in and out of the courthouse.

Ally Keegan

In the grand scheme of things, San Diego keeping more court services online wouldn’t exactly be earth-shattering. Rather, it would just be catching up to the times, and to other courts throughout the country. Many counties now maintain online databases where you can retrieve court records remotely. Other counties also offer electronic filing options, where parties can schedule hearings or upload their motions without having to step foot in the courthouse. All relatively quick, painless, and contact-free.

Plus, now that San Diego has taken steps towards applying some of these measures amid the pandemic, many of the common objections to this type of modernization are moot. It is hard to argue it would be too costly or time-consuming to get videoconferencing capabilities installed now that they are already up and running in several courtrooms. Any perceived hassle of getting familiar with the new technology is also less convincing now that we have already learned the basics over the past month out of necessity. Even some judges that have been on the bench for decades are conducting video hearings and walking lawyers through connectivity and technical issues like seasoned pros.

It might have taken a pandemic to force our hand, but now that we are headed in the right direction, there is good reason to keep up the momentum. In order to obtain the best results for our clients, we want to work smarter and harder. The bottom line is that staying the course with expanded remote court services and accessibility could very well help us accomplish both. Implementing this evolving technology in the courthouse frees up more time for us to dedicate to our clients and their cases, and the whole system benefits as a result.

Ally Keegan is a criminal defense attorney committed to defending the rights of those accused of and charged with a crime. She is an associate at the Law Office of David P. Shapiro in San Diego.