Brave New World: Cameras and the Local Courts

Futurists generally approach technology in one of two camps: Complete fear, certain that all new innovations are harbingers of doom; and child-like glee, with little thought of the long-term impact.  For those of us who have daily responsibilities that don’t generally include naval-gazing, technological advances must undergo a pragmatic approach: they either help us do our work or they do not.

The “Cameras in the Courtroom” debate has been around since at least the 80’s, but it is the affordability of the Internet, as opposed to complicated and more costly public access programming, that now makes broadcasts a reality.  Even Indiana’s own Court of Appeals and Supreme Court have been broadcasting oral arguments for several years.

Initial hearings in criminal cases are likely the fastest-growing segment of court-employed video conference in Indiana. As more rural counties build larger jail facilities, financial pressure often prevents expanding old jails near the courthouse.  As a consequence, jails are farther outside the county seats and video conferencing has helped many counties cut costs. In Howard County, a judge even recently attended court via video conference. Eventually, I expect Indiana courts will expand use of this technology to most non-trial matters.

I had the experience of trying something similar recently, using Skype. I had a client based out of state who was not able to come to Indiana for what was going to be a fairly simple matter, but one for which his input was important.  Although we resolved the issues without going on the record, I think that the video conferencing technology made this possible.  A video conference is more personal and interactive than a telephone; one gets a sense of the pauses, the facial expressions, and hand gestures we depend on to express ourselves. Those human elements are important in negotiations, particularly when financial issues may be secondary for the participants. 

I do have a few suggestions for participants or fellow attorneys who might use video conferencing in a professional setting.  1. Consider investing in a quality web camera and/or microphone.  Most webcams that are built-in to laptops are mediocre (and microphones are even worse) and HD webcams can be easily purchased for under $100.  I use this Microsoft version that worked quite well.  2. Like any camera that uses no flash,  consider your lighting.  Nothing looks more amateurish than extreme backlighting.  3.  Finally, consider having the remote party use headphones rather than speakers, to minimize feedback.

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It’s a Small Claim After All.

If you’ve decided to handle a legal dispute on your own, you might be headed to small claims court.  The Indiana Supreme Court has put together a great resource for small claims disputes that can be found here.  It is a must for those on their first journey through the small claims process.

Here are a few more thoughts based on my own experiences:

1. Put yourself in the judge’s shoes. Imagine that you are the judge.  Two strangers come in and describe two different versions of events. You don’t know them from Adam. What would convince you that your case is right? Most small claims cases are not won or lost on arguments  but on evidence – meaning the documents and witnesses that are most helpful to the court.  

2. Documents, Documents, Documents.  If there’s a receipt, agreement, or repair estimate, or a picture that helps show what the case is about, then bring it.  Make enough copies for the court, your opponent, and you.  

3.  Stay on target.  Stay away from personal attacks on you opponent.  Don’t talk about his multiple DUI convictions or his status as a deadbeat dad if your dispute is about the fishng boat he sold you that won’t run.  It may irritate the  judge, and it detracts from the rest of your evidence. If the judge finds in your favor it won’t be because  your opponent is a bad person.

4. The case is yours to present, not the judge’s.  It’s not the judge’s job to make your case for you or to tell you what evidence to present, or what witnesses should talk next.  It’s not a Q&A session.  Plan ahead and create an outline of what you’ll ask your witnesses.  Start with the basics: who they  are, where they live and how they are related to the case (tenant, friend, witness, customer, plumber, etc.) Stick to what each witness saw or heard.  Avoid asking a witness who she thinks should win the case. If you are the only witness, plan what you will say.  Again, stick to the facts.

5.  Remember your audience.  You are there to convey information to the judge, not to verbally outshine your opponent.  If you are given a chance to cross-examine your opponent or his witnesses, keep it brief.  Only ask questions that help the court understand the testimony already given.  Don’t help your opponent by giving his witnesses or him a chance to further explain their answers.  

6.  Finally, don’t interrupt the judge.  I know this sounds painfully obvious, but speaking in open court is stressful for anyone. Add inexperience to the mix and you have a recipe for forgetting the basics.  If you feel that you absolutely must interrupt the judge, perhaps to correct a misunderstanding the judge has about the facts, try to do it politely, such as “Judge, may I speak?” It’s the equivalent of raising your hand in class.

Even if the claim is a small one and it’s not cost-effective to hire an attorney to represent you in court, you still may find it helpful to simply meet with an attorney about the case before your court date.  It might help you focus your presentation to the judge and understand the law that the judge will be using to help make his decision.

Anchors Away: Are teen sailor’s parents guilty of neglect?

 Abby Sunderland, a 16 year-old California girl recently made news when she attempted to sail around the world. She was unsuccessful and had to be rescued in the Indian Ocean.  Her parents have drawn criticism for allowing her to participate in the inherently dangerous activity. So, is this a crime? 

 In Indiana, neglect of a dependent, I.C. 35-46-1-4, states that “A person having the care of a dependent . . . who knowingly or intentionally . . . places the dependent in a situation that endangers the dependent’s life or health . . . commits neglect of a dependent.”  In Indiana, that’s a D Felony.

  The first two elements are plain: having the dependent and intentionally permitting the voyage.  Any criminal prosecution would likely turn on whether the 16 year-old is an experienced enough sailor to mitigate the inherent dangers of an around-the-world voyage. Is it less dangerous for one child than another?  The defense would present evidence of the extensive training that the 16 year-old had and compare it to the risks of a similarly seasoned adult sailor. 

I would also expect some pre-trial fireworks over whether the defense can introduce evidence of the risks of more common activities that minors engage in, such as piloting and powersports, as the State argues to the court that such evidence is irrelevant. 

Note there is no defense that the dependent wanted to participate in the activity.  Also, though her rescue brings attention to the dangers, her success in the voyage would by no means prevent prosecuton under this law.  Also, when the parents are accused of seeking a reality show, they raise a lightning rod in the storm of controversey and make themselves a more likely target.

The Preamble

Blog Inaguration Day.  I hope to cover topics related to law in Indiana, and nationally, that will help readers learn more about the law.  Most law-related blogs (or blawgs, as they are known) are written for lawyers.  This one will not be written with lawyers primarily in mind.  I expect that posts will often relate to matters that interest my clients and friends: Indiana domestic and family law, civil law, wills and trusts, probate, and the like. Feel free to write in with a suggested topic.  However, remember that this blog does not constitue an attorney-client relationship and should not be relied upon for you to take, or refrain from taking, any legal action.