By Cyndi Sellers
With Cameron Parish government offices closed to the public and most employees working remotely due to the COVID-19 shutdown, the 38th Judicial District Court has had a special challenge. Many court proceedings cannot be delayed indefinitely. Defendants cannot be left in limbo possibly in jail, awaiting the result of a routine procedure.
Judge Penelope Richard and her staff, in cooperation with the Cameron Parish District Attorney’s office, the Public Defender’s Office, and private attorneys, have developed a procedure to keep the wheels of justice turning in this extraordinary situation.
“We are holding court by Zoom,” Judge Richard said Tuesday, May 5, and in fact we had court this morning. We have juvenile court tomorrow (Wednesday) and everyone participates by Zoom at different locations. The court reporter and clerk are usually the only people in the courtroom.”
Zoom is a teleconferencing app. If used from a computer everyone can hear and see everyone else on the conference call. If used from a cell phone, the user can see up to four people at a time. Judge Richard said she has had as many as 12-15 people on a Zoom conference call, and has participated in several Zoom conferences with the Supreme Court that had as many as 49 connected at one time, without any problems.
Trials and hearings that require witnesses are being continued until July and August. Judge Richard doesn’t plan to have witnesses testify on any a regular basis right now because it would be difficult to judge credibility over teleconferencing platforms. She is mostly doing arraignments, bond hearings, and sentencing. Drug Court is being held every other Tuesday because constant monitoring is part of the program.
The courthouse remains closed to the public, but staff are answering phones and the Clerk of Court has arranged for security personnel from the Sheriff’s Office to pick up documents outside the front door and hand them to staff members inside. The District Attorney’s Office has sent out letters to people who had traffic summonses that normally require court appearance, allowing them to pay out of court. Someone is in the office answering the phone daily, and messages are checked if the caller cannot get through.
Judge Richard said she will be participating in conference calls and working with the Coroner to determine when to allow people into the courtroom. She believes that some benefits of video conferencing will remain after the virus closures are ended.