In the recent past, cost-conscious judges and administrators may have looked upon courtroom technology as something of a luxury. Now, with constrained budgets and an ever-expanding workload, they increasingly see technology as more of a cost-saving necessity.
“A court may not concern itself with whether a lawyer is going to do a better job, but it does care about making the most effective use of its own resources,” says Frederick Lederer, director of the Center for Legal and Court Technology in Williamsburg, Va.
The Fairfax County Court system teems with state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment. Photo courtesy of Human Circuit Inc. The CLCT, a non-profit research, education and consulting organization founded about 20 years ago at the College of William & Mary, serves as a showcase and proving ground for new courtroom technology.
“There is no standard courtroom configuration, because the judges and lawyers create a court culture, and that culture drastically affects what that court does and what makes sense for the court,” Lederer says.
However, there can be too much technology for some. “There are stories where lawyers are inept or incompetent at using technology,” said Lederer, who adds, “Judges get frustrated very quickly and very easily.” Which is why integrating user-friendly technology is the goal of court designers, aggregators and engineers.
“We take what may be a complicated process behind the scenes and try to make it as simple for the end users,” says John Lumsden, chief engineer for Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County Courts.
Fairfax County started with one prototype court in 2006 that was developed with the help of the CLCT and implemented by Human Circuit Inc., a media integration firm located in Gaithersburg, Md. Fairfax now has 17 state-of-the-art courtrooms united through a central master control system, according to Lumsden. Fairfax’s courtrooms are part of a complex array of equipment in a setup that rivals most television stations, he said. The courtrooms are outfitted with multiple large flat-panel monitors on the walls. Smaller LCD screens are placed in the jury box and at other strategic locations. Along with audio and video devices, all that equipment is connected to the courtroom’s audiovisual rack and then linked to the courthouse’s master control room.
Vaddio’s Clearview HD USB
At the center of the courtroom is a podium with a document-reading camera that can send an image from that position to the screens around the courtroom.
“The original killer app for attorneys was electronic evidence presentation to judges and juries,” Lederer said. Studies show that presenting evidence electronically increases the speed of a trial by up to 33 percent, he adds.
Because of the ease with which laptops and document cameras can display evidence, those devices are used heavily in the courtroom, said David Bartee, director of the Fairfax Court Technology Office. “The ability to bring your laptop into a courtroom and plug it into a system and present anything from your laptop throughout the courtroom on multiple displays has overwhelmingly been successful,” he said.
Crestron’s Pro 2 In addition, connectivity enables Fairfax courts to streamline the arraignment process so the Fairfax County jail—which is next door to the court building—can ensure that defendants appear before the court while avoiding the security problems associated with transporting prisoners.
“Videoconferencing in a courtroom was something that judges and attorneys were not knocking down the doors to do,” Bartee said. However, “we found out we could do arraignments even quicker than before, with less than half of the staff involved.”
Videoconferencing not only enables Fairfax courts to conduct arraignments of prisoners within the local jail, but they can arraign prisoners apprehended in other jurisdictions, eliminating the need for sheriff’s deputies to transport prisoners back and forth, and to book and process defendants in and out of facilities.
By using remote arraignment the county estimates it annually saves from $400,000 to $450,000. Fairfax Juvenile Court has begun implementing procedures for probation field officers to engage the court without having to travel. The centralization of integrated electronic systems has made the difference, according to Bartee.
Wolfvision’s Document Camera A facility can spend a lot less money and utilize stand-alone equipment, but that facility will miss the savings that centralization offers, Bartee said. The initial investment can seem great at first, but as courtrooms are added, it becomes a cost-saving measure, he said. Additional savings accrue because managers need not buy all the equipment for every courtroom; a centralized area will hold that gear.
The 17 Fairfax high-tech courts route and distribute audio and video signals to a centralized master control room in the building’s basement data center. “That’s where we are able to share our expensive hardware and resources rather than duplicate it in every courtroom,” Bartee says.
Nonetheless, there are still many court systems that have not installed much in the way of new equipment and many that are due for upgrades from analog to digital technology. “I wouldn’t suggest that they invest to the extent that we did, but at the same time I would tell them not to ignore what they can share, such as a codec device that allows videoconferences to take place,” Bartee said.
A codec is a device or computer program that is capable of encoding or decoding a digital data stream or signal. For the budget-conscious, a simple, effective and lower-cost alternative is a USB camera plugged into a courtroom PC or a laptop. Vaddio’s Clearview HD USB camera is broadcast quality and works with Skype, Google Talk and Cisco Jabber.
“The witness can use the Internet, and the court can use the USB camera to depose a person,” says Jesi Wytonick, Vaddio special channels manager.
For those courtrooms in need of guidance, they can turn to the CLCT for advice and subsequently hire design firms and aggregators to implement plans.
Evertz’s EQX “It’s critical that the judge and clerks have complete control of the courtroom environment,” Bartee says. For example, there are occasions—such as a sidebar discussion—when court microphones have to be muted, or when the judge does not want the jury to see something on screen. For those situations, Crestron’s wireless handheld touch-screen control can help a judge maintain full control while clerks and lawyers are afforded limited options. An example is a lawyer at the podium being able to limit the viewing of a document to the judge and opposing counsel.
The interfaces work with the Crestron Pro 2, the brains of the operations and a processor that enables all the communications between the equipment and the control panels in the courtroom AV rack.
“It’s challenging programming from the control standpoint, but in the end you have to have a user interface that is simple enough that it doesn’t bog down people in court,” Bartee says.
Fairfax has installed a Wolfvision document camera with accessories for special images such as X-rays and larger documents. The podium where it resides is wired back to the AV rack through the raised flooring. The rack is equipped with a Shure microphone receiver, a CISCO wireless access point and Evertz Microsystems Ltd terminal gear for transporting to the central master control.
In addition, a Sierra composite video router for cameras supports videoconferences over codec or closed circuit with the jail. The cameras are also used for protected or secluded witness testimony.
A Crestron RGB-HD router sends the computer signals around the courtroom. The rack also features a Biamp AudiaFlex audio system, a digital signal processing system that is remote controlled to adjust audio levels and mute functions.
A Boekler point maker (PBIX 90) allows annotation as an overlay over the displayed video signal. Each courtroom has a Sennheiser assisted-listening system with two language channels, an English channel and a channel for foreign language interpreters. There are two power supplies, one of them uninterruptible (AVPC UPS).
The master control system serves four primary functions, starting with the five codecs for 17 courtrooms and the jail next door, Lumsden said. The master control also accommodates overflow of courtrooms by facilitating the viewing of proceedings in other courtrooms. It also provides a means of remote configuration and alarm detection, specifically the optic transport system.
All optic systems tie into an Evertz’s EQX, which connects all of the audio and video originating from the courtrooms and routes it another courtroom, the codec or the jail. It is optically connected; it takes an optical signal, converts it to electrical signal, handles the routing and transmits it back out as optical. “We’re routing four channels of audio and two channels of composite video and two channels of RGB HD video to and from each location,” Lumsden said.
That level of complexity requires ongoing training, so Fairfax court staff meets regularly with members of the Fairfax Bar Association technology committee.
“Those who have never used it are coming in and realizing what they can do,” Bartee said. “Judges give us feedback all the time about how well an attorney did or did not do with courtroom technology.”
The Fairfax Court Technology Office policy is to analyze new technology carefully before committing to it. For example, the courts will continue using standard definition cameras for the time being, Lumsden said. New courtrooms going forward will be digital with analog backwards compatibility.
“Standard def will go away at some point, but as long we can realize some cost savings by using it while it’s available, it seems to be prudent to do so,” Lumsden said. “We’re just trying not to be too quick to commit to certain technologies until they are proven in the courtroom environment especially,” he said.
“Not all these digital products have proven they could do the things they claimed in all cases,” Bartee adds. “It is something that has to be tested just like everything else was, and find its proper balance in the overall scheme of things.”