Federal courts to begin first ever digital video pilot of criminal cases

Federal district courts have been prohibited  from allowing any sort of electronic dissemination of trials since 1946, but that is about to change.

Fourteen federal trial courts and 100 judges have been selected to take part in the federal Judiciary's three-year digital video pilot, which will begin July 18 and will go a long way towards determining the effect of cameras in courtrooms.

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According to a Federal Court release the pilot will include more than 100 US District judges, including judges who favor cameras in court and those who are skeptical of them. No proceedings may be recorded without the approval of the presiding judge, and parties must consent to the recording of each proceeding in a case. The recordings will be made publicly available on www.uscourts.gov and on local participating court websites at the court's discretion, the court stated.

The pilot recordings will not be simulcast, but will be made available as soon as possible. The presiding judge can choose to stop a recording if it is necessary, for example, to protect the rights of the parties and witnesses, preserve the dignity of the court, or choose not to post the video for public view. Coverage of prospective jury questioning known as voir dire is prohibited, as is coverage of jurors or alternate jurors, the court said.

A full list of rules for the pilot program is available here.

The court said that electronic media coverage of criminal proceedings in federal courts has been expressly prohibited under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 53 since the criminal rules were adopted in 1946, and by the Judicial Conference since 1972. In 1996 the Conference rescinded its camera coverage prohibition for courts of appeals, and allowed each appellate court discretion to permit broadcasting of oral arguments. To date, two courts of appeals-the Second and the Ninth-allow such coverage. In the early 1990s the Judicial Conference conducted a pilot program permitting electronic media coverage of civil proceeding in six district courts and two courts of appeals.

The courts taking part in the pilot program include:  

  • Middle District of Alabama
  • Northern District of California
  • Southern District of Florida
  • District of Guam
  • Northern District of Illinois
  • Southern District of Iowa
  • District of Kansas
  • District of Massachusetts
  • Eastern District of Missouri
  • District of Nebraska
  • Northern District of Ohio
  • Southern District of Ohio
  • Western District of Tennessee
  • Western District of Washington

Digital video  isn't the only electronic debate going on in the court system.  Federal courts have been debating about how much freedom users of smartphones and portable wireless devices in general, should have in a federal courthouse.  

Some say they should be banned outright while others say they should be allowed in but their use curtailed.  Unregulated use of smartphones has resulted in mistrials, exclusion of jurors and fines in some case. The problem isn't so much what the phones can do technology, but that users will link to social sites such as Twitter, Facebook or Linkedin or perhaps blog about an ongoing  case.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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