While canceling all in-person court hearings due to the pandemic has been frustrating for the Isanti County Attorney’s Office, there have been a few positives, such as the technological upgrades made to the Isanti County courtrooms.
Isanti County Jeff Edblad said a live jury trial held the week of March 22 was the first live court appearance Isanti County has had since November 2020, because hearings have been primarily done remotely since early fall 2020.
“The attorneys are doing them (hearings) from their offices,” Edblad said. “With the attorneys all having private offices, we’re able to distance and everybody handles the hearings from their office.”
An order filed on March 22 by the Minnesota Supreme Court states “in-person proceedings may be scheduled and held in sentencing hearings in criminal cases in which there is a presumptive commitment to the Department of Corrections.”
The order filed on March 22 also allows in-person criminal jury trials in all cases to take place in accordance with the Minnesota Judicial Branch COVID-19 Preparedness Plan and approved local jury trial plans.
“So I’m excited that things are moving forward and I look forward to having a full, live, robust court calendars that are handled in a safe manner,” Edblad said.
Edblad is looking forward to being able to resume in-person jury trials; however, the March 22 order requires all hearings to still be conducted remotely, with some exceptions being made.
“Often cases aren’t real until you’re physically here. You’re in the courtroom, you’re dealing with your attorney face to face, there’s a prosecutor who’s dealing with your attorney face to face, you’re appearing in front of a judge, it’s real. It’s not real when you’re home sitting on your living room couch. It often isn’t real to people. That’s been one the problems,” Edblad said. “It’s much easier to resolve cases when people are physically present and can talk to face to face. So from a communications standpoint there’s been a frustration because public defenders haven’t had the opportunity to have those face-to-face meetings and discussions with their clients and we haven’t had these live court appearances and these face-to-face dealings with resolving a case. So cases aren’t being resolved as quickly as they have been in the past when you have the opportunity of those face-to-face hearings and face-to-face discussions and negotiations. And sometimes for some people, it isn’t real until they show up and realize there’s a jury here.”
Edblad said sometimes the sanctity of the courtroom has been lost during remote hearings.
“We’ve been responding to and honoring the Supreme Court’s order as to how the courts are operating. There have been delays, but it’s certainly gotten better, as far as calendars and things have gotten much more efficient as people have become more comfortable, but one the problems that is always ongoing with having the Zoom court appearances is people don’t treat it as the solemn experience that court is,” Edblad said. “We see people sitting on their beds having court hearings or smoking cigarettes or eating sandwiches or engaged in foul language with other people in the room or screen savers that are offensive. So there have been some of those cases that people have forgotten the solemness and sanctity of the courtroom, and there’s something lost with that.”
Edblad said one of the upsides in not having live court appearances was it gave the county the opportunity to do some major overhauls in the two main courtrooms.
“So we were able to make some changes to the courtrooms to address distancing concerns moving forward in a pandemic,” Edblad said. “We were able to take out some conference rooms and expand the footprint of the courtroom to allow people to physically distance while they’re in the courtroom. So we were able to make some infrastructure changes to allow for greater physical distancing in a courtroom.”
Part of changes in the courtroom include the way exhibits will be introduced.
“We were also able to make some major technological changes in both courtrooms. We were able to make the courtrooms into smart courtrooms. You think about trials in the past where you would introduce a document into evidence and how many people touch that document,” Edblad said. “Prior to having the technology with the projectors and being able to introduce exhibits and publish exhibits electronically, it would not be uncommon for an exhibit being entered into evidence to be touched and handled multiple times by multiple people. This alleviates having multiple people handling pieces of evidence multiple times by being able to use the smart technology. So we now have the computers and the projectors and the screens in both courtrooms that will allow safe handling in introduction of exhibits into evidence. So that’s an exciting thing moving forward.”
Edblad is excited the courtrooms have been made safer.
“So while there’s been some frustrations with cases being delayed and court not being treated as the solemn institution and entity that it is, it is exciting because we’ve been able to use the time the courtrooms themselves were not actively used to update those courtrooms not only for dealing with concerns involving the current pandemic and safety and distancing, but it also put those courtrooms in a really nice position moving forward into the future,” Edblad said.
Edblad said like everyone else, the attorney’s office had to adjust and find ways to continue to do their job.
“We have to remember the same message in dealing with this as we tell our kids in dealing with some of the school issues, is that we have to be flexible and resilient,” Edblad said. “I guess that’s one of the lessons that came out of this. You have to remember flexibility and resiliency because there are tech issues to navigate, some decorum issues that crop up and there are some cases that are still out there.”