Special Profile: Remote Video Proceedings for Traffic Cases in Fresno, California

In this month’s edition of the Judging Traffic newsletter, we’ve decided to deviate from the normal newsletter format of five or six traffic-related cases, laws, or news stories in favor of exploring an innovative way one metropolitan jurisdiction has found to improve access to its traffic courts. The Fresno County (CA) Superior Court runs a remote video proceeding system to handle its traffic cases for residents who would have to travel more than fifteen miles to appear in court in downtown Fresno. Fresno County is a large county both in terms of population and geography, holding close to a million people per the latest Census data, and containing some cities that are located more than sixty miles away from Fresno, the county seat. Given the county’s geography, many residents may have difficulty traveling to the Fresno County courthouse in downtown Fresno. Travel time to the courthouse may exceed an hour from certain locations in Fresno County, presenting difficulties for many members of the community and stretching the resources of law enforcement personnel from rural areas of the county. In order to facilitate access to the court system and easier disposition of traffic cases, Fresno County partnered with CourtCall in 2013 to establish a remote video system which gives residents who live more than fifteen miles away from the Fresno County courthouse the option to try traffic cases via videoconference at a remote site instead of having to travel to downtown Fresno to do so.

There are two remote locations for traffic proceedings in Fresno County—one in Mendota and one in Coalinga. Each location holds traffic hearings once a week. Each remote location has a large room similar to a courtroom, which is equipped with wide-screen camera, a large television monitor, and microphones. The remote locations connect to the main courtroom in Fresno by videoconference, which allows defendants, witnesses, and the judge to see, hear, and speak to each other. Once court employees at the remote locations conduct roll call and gather documents, the parties continue as if the proceedings were a traditional traffic hearing, just using the videoconference system. Witnesses testifying in support of defendants must appear at the same locations as those defendants. If any new exhibits are necessary, court employees in the remote location will scan and then e-mail or fax the documents immediately to the judge. The court also typically provides a Spanish interpreter at the remote sites, since the majority of rural Fresno County residents speak Spanish as their primary language.

Residents of Fresno County are not charged any money for opting to use the remote video proceeding service instead of appearing in person in the county courthouse in Fresno. The Superior Court paid the initial cost of purchasing the video equipment, and it continues to pay for replacing any malfunctioning equipment, providing court staff at the remote locations, all IT costs, and the vendor’s videoconferencing service. The remote location hosts (Coalinga and Mendota) provide facilities for the court to use, an Internet connection, and some minor on-site staff assistance at the remote locations once a week.

Fresno County has seen significant usage of its remote video proceeding system. From the state of the program in April 2013 through the end of June 2017, 856 people in Fresno County used the remote system to attend their traffic hearings. A total of 1,179 residents in the same time period have been able to ask court personnel at the remote locations questions regarding the disposition of their traffic cases. Fresno County has also seen strengthened relationships between its staff in Fresno and government personnel in the host cities for the remote video proceedings. Finally, Fresno County has been able to use the experience gained from running these remote video proceedings in traffic cases to expand court and legal services in other areas, such as domestic violence cases and video remote interpreting services.

Fresno Superior Court personnel have enthusiastically endorsed remote video proceeding abilities and recommend such a system (along with other teleservices) to other jurisdictions that want to serve remote consumers better, faster, and in a more cost-effective manner. Court personnel report few problems with the technology, the majority of which were related to either Internet disruptions or user error. In the four years that the program has run thus far, court personnel report having to replace two malfunctioning cameras, which was done easily and at low cost. Users of the remote video proceeding program have rated it highly in exit surveys, remarking that the experience is similar to being in the courtroom in Fresno, but without the cost and time expenses associated with actually traveling to downtown Fresno. The Commission on the Future of California’s Court System has cited Fresno’s remote video program in a report to the Chief Justice of California which, among other things, recommends expansion of remote video proceeding services throughout the state of California.

This sort of remote video proceeding system could serve as a useful tool for geographically large counties and/or counties with high failure-to-appear rates in traffic adjudications or other court proceedings. In order to assist any readers who may face such problems in their own jurisdiction or simply wish to learn more about the program, the Fresno Superior Court has graciously offered to provide interested parties more information about the remote video proceeding system and arrange for a demonstration of the system. To set this up, you may contact Fresno Superior Court Traffic Manager Noelia Pineada at npineada@fresno.courts.ca.gov or by phone at (559) 457-1680.

For more information about the particular court videoconferencing system Fresno County chose to use for its remote video proceeding system (CourtCall), interested parties may contact Matt Wapnick at mattw@courtcall.com or at (310) 743-1864.

You can learn more about Fresno’s remote video proceeding system on this page of the Fresno Superior Court website. We have also uploaded the full Q&A document from the Fresno Superior Court to our Traffic Resource Center for Judges at this link. You can also read the segment of the Commission on the Future of California's Court System's report dealing with remote video proceedings at this link, starting on numbered page 221 of the document (page 237 of the PDF file).

Many thanks to the staff at the Fresno Superior Court, particularly Noelia Pineada and Josette Bello, for their assistance and their inside perspective on the remote video proceeding system, as well as Matt Wapnick for putting all parties in touch.

NCSC Traffic Resources

If you're not familiar with the Traffic Resource Center for Judges, we invite you to take a few minutes to browse the website here, including our Q&A with the Fresno Superior Court staff on our Facts, Statistics, and Studies page. We also still have physical copies of our recently released Traffic Issue Brief Compendium, which may be acquired by emailing Greg Hurley at ghurley@ncsc.org.

Upcoming Courses at the National Judicial College

The following courses are offered by the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada, in the coming months. A limited number of scholarships are available through generous funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Please contact Katheryn Yetter at yetter@judges.org or (775) 327-8269 for more information.

Behind the Wheel: Today’s Traffic Offender (October 23-26; Reno, NV) The arena of traffic-related offenses is constantly evolving. Statistically, driving while under the influence of drugs as well as alcohol will be an issue that will appear with more frequency in traffic courts around the country. This course will delve into several issues that judges who hear traffic cases will experience this year, as well as offer insight into case issues and strategies from the prospective of the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the law enforcement officer, and the treatment provider. The course will also offer in- depth insight on how roadside drug detection is done as well as how the 12-step DRE protocol is conducted. Additionally, the course will offer a demonstration on the various types of drug and alcohol detection equipment that is available and the reliability of the instruments.

Properly and Effectively Adjudicating Drugged Drivers (October 30 - December 8; online; free) Unlike alcohol-impaired driving, drugged driving has fewer tools in the field to detect impairment and concentration levels in the body. Drugged driving cases require a judge to utilize a variety of judicial tools to effectively adjudicate these cases. In addition to the ability to determine which kinds of drugs an individual may be using, it is important to know how these drugs affect the individual and their ability to operate a vehicle. It is also imperative that a judge knows how to effectively craft sentences, which include treatment options, in order to provide a participant with the most beneficial mode of recovery.

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