A recent ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals says that sentencing a person convicted of a felony via video conference is dehumanizing. In addition, it apparently isn’t listed in any court rules. But that doesn’t appear to be stopping at least one circuit court judge here in Michigan from doing it anyway.
The practice of sentencing defendants via video conference from the jail where they sit in a cell while the judge hands down a sentence in court, is a common practice in Hillsdale County. In particular, Judge Michael Smith, that county’s only circuit judge, who says that he intends to continue the custom, despite the Michigan Court of Appeals ruling when when the sentences are for felony convictions. The reason? He says there are numerous benefits.
In addition to saving the court system a great deal of money, Judge Smith says the process also provides a measure of safety for court employees and civilians in the building. In an interview with the media, he explained that “If they (the defendants) don’t leave jail, then we don’t have them in the courthouse, and have the problems Berrien faced.” In the wake of the recent shooting at the Berrien County Courthouse, one has to wonder if other courts will take a page from Judge Smith’s book and increase the number of video conference court hearings they participate in. Apparently not if they follow the recently ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals.
Michigan law does actually allow video conference court hearings for defendants. The list of hearings that the state allows to take place from a jail cell include arraignments, guilty pleas, pretrial conferences and misdemeanor sentences. But felony sentencings are not on the list and the Court of Appeals pointed out that fact in their recent ruling.
He offers defendants choice of appearing in person or on video
According to Judge Michael Smith, he has been handing down video sentencings, along with numerous other types of court hearings for a while now. He doesn’t plan to stop. He also says that he offers almost all defendants in his court the choice of appearing at their hearings in person, or attending them via video conference. Most, he says, choose the video conference. But not all. Which is why the Court of Appeals is involved.
This all began because in 2014. Judge Smith sentenced Trenity Heller to prison for a methamphetamine related felony. The sentencing was conducted in the Hillsdale County Courthouse, but Heller sat in his jail cell for the duration of the hearing, having never been given the choice to appear in court. As a result, he appealed the sentence that Judge Smith passed down, claiming that it would have been a different sentence had he been present in person and had a chance to confer with his attorney. And with regards to that, Heller says, he was never even given the choice.
In the 3-0 ruling, the appeals court states that “Sentencing by video dehumanizes the defendant who participates from a jail location, unable to privately communicate with his or her counsel and likely unable to visualize all the participants in the courtroom.” In addition, the ruling says that the process of video conferencing sentences clash with “the judge’s duty to acknowledge the humanity of even a convicted felon.”
The Court of Appeals has granted Heller the right to be resentenced and said that should he choose this option, he must be allowed to be present in the courtroom at the time.