Court on wheels, virtual hearings roll out as Utah justice system grapples with coronavirus

Pandemic catapults criminal justice system into new, virtual era

SALT LAKE CITY — Those answering criminal charges at Salt Lake City’s municipal courthouse Friday morning were redirected to the curb. They stepped up to the open side door of a humming, expansive RV now known as Courtroom 6. The defendants stood at the threshold one at a time as they spoke to a judge perched on a bench inside.

The courtroom on wheels, now in its first week, is serving up justice food-truck style.

It’s one of several newfangled approaches Utah’s old-fashioned criminal justice system is taking amid the coronavirus outbreak. Fallout from the pandemic has changed the system at almost every level, from an offender’s first interaction with police all the way to the appeal process.

“The idea was, we need a way to interface with people who need something from us — and that’s defendants and victims — without bringing them into a closed environment where they come in close contact with our staff,” said presiding Judge Clemens Landau. “We’re just flying by the seat of our pants.”

Parked just outside the Salt Lake City Justice Court, the mobile courtroom allows defendants to keep about 6 feet from a judge and a judicial assistant inside, while a prosecutor appears over laptop video and a defense attorney tunes in by phone.

On Friday morning, deputy constables urged defendants to wait for their turn inside their cars instead of in the frigid morning air. One man was accused of bringing a firearm to an airport, while another appeared in a DUI case.

The courthouse remains open for some things, like payments for fix-it tickets. In other parts of the country, however, many municipal courts — which handle misdemeanor, traffic and small claims cases — have closed amid the spread of COVID-19.

Even if the Salt Lake City courthouse is shuttered, Landau said, the mobile version could potentially stay up and running. Most proceedings are being postponed until summertime, but many deemed important public safety matters, like domestic violence and DUI, still are being heard. Some who showed up simply didn’t get word of delays in their cases.

On Friday, the mobile courtroom’s third day in operation, Landau and Judge Jeanne Robinson sported sneakers, jeans and parkas. They used legal pads, an audio recorder and a big white board to keep track of the morning’s work.

Just days earlier, it had proved tricky to limit courtrooms and surrounding spaces to just 10 people – as heath officials required – so they held court outdoors. But several swarmed the sidewalk all at once. So court, attorneys and police brainstormed other ideas: Could they plan a judge at a drive-thru window? Or set up shop in vacant food truck?

That’s when Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown offered up his agency’s mobile command center, a mobile home outfitted with a switchboard, cameras and other gadgets useful in a terror attach, natural disaster or other crisis.

Ashley Miller, 26, arrived Friday at the mobile court to admit to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct stemming from a time before Miller said she got her mental health on track. She has anxiety, she said, and the new courtroom setup made her feel at ease. “Instead of having my heart pounding, walking through the door and wondering what’s going to happen, it’s just much more relaxed.” Miller said.

Now Landau says the roving courthouse might prove useful even after coronavirus cases taper off – potentially by visiting Utah’s homeless shelters and giving any defendants there a chance to clear their cases.

“Disasters are good in one respect, to get everyone thinking out-of-the-box for at least the moment,” Landau said. While public health is important, he said, “we also are mindful that it’s our responsibility to try and keep the justice system moving and the community safe.”

In a conference room just a few city blocks away, three prosecutors in the Salt Lake District Attorney’s Office sat several chairs apart and tuned into a series of 3rd District Court hearings held over video, an unprecedented move to help limit the spread of the coronavirus in Utah. While jury trials and nonessential court proceedings are being pushed back, matters like bail hearings, sentencing hearings and probation violations for those in jail are being handled over video. “This is something which may be the new normal for the near future,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

At the request of Gill and defense attorneys, a judge approved the release of a new wave of 23 Salt Lake County jail inmates deemed low-risk, a move Gill said would free up jail beds for violent offenders without harming public safety. Law enforcers in Salt Lake and Utah counties say they are prioritizing such violent offenses.

The Utah Court of Appeals also is making use of a virtual courtroom, where a panel of three judges and attorneys convened from five different locations for the first fully online oral arguments Tuesday. Judge Ryan Harris, one of the three judges, said he has feared someone’s Wi-Fi will cut out in the middle of an argument, but no such glitch happened Tuesday.

“It’s surreal. I walk downstairs and put my robe on over my clothes in my living room,” Harris said, “When the clerk announced court was in session, it felt like a special moment,” he recalled.

“The fact that we’re able to pull this off struck me as pretty darn neat,” Harris said. “Unless we ourselves start getting sick – knock on wood – we anticipate we’ll be able to just continue offering the same service to the public as we have before.”