Fresno County courts using technology like never before due to coronavirus crisis

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- The wheels of justice are back in motion in Fresno County, but they're moving in a different way than ever before.

The main Fresno County courthouse has stayed mostly empty for more than two weeks even as police made arrests and the district attorney filed dozens of cases.

More than 200 people got scheduled to enter a plea Wednesday and although they came to court, almost nobody else did.

"You have the right to be physically in front of me for this arraignment," Judge David Gottlieb told a defendant who was standing in the courtroom while Judge Gottlieb appeared via Zoom. "Because of the COVID-19, we have devised this method so you can see me by video."

The state judicial council encouraged counties to use technology for remote hearings during the coronavirus crisis.

Fresno County courts spent a couple weeks setting up to do hearings via Zoom and as I witnessed on Wednesday, the screens filled up with attorneys, a judge, and other courtroom staff.

"This also requires the cooperation of the sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender, and defense attorneys who all are working together on this which is great to see," said public interest attorney Sabrina Ashjian.

For now, they're just using the technology for arraignments - where defendants hear the charges against them for the first time.

Even during the pandemic, those hearings have to happen within seven court days.

Ashjian, a former prosecutor, says the courts could expand the technology for other time-sensitive hearings.

"We're hoping to see it being used for additional hearings including preliminary hearings so that officers and witnesses and victims won't have to be in court live," she said.

Ashjian says the crisis may have forced the courts into the precipice of change.

Video arraignments could continue after the crisis in Fresno County, for example, as we already see in some other counties, like Tulare.

And attorneys are just starting to learn what they can do.

"Zoom has a feature where there are private rooms that attorneys and clients can go in that are not visible to the rest of the zoom audience," Ashjian said.

She's planning to post webinars soon, showing attorneys how to use the technology safely and efficiently.

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