As coronavirus cases began to spike in the state, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered most courthouses — including municipal courts — to close.
That was six months ago, and the ongoing closures mean backlogs of thousands of cases, ranging from speeding tickets to driving while intoxicated to uncut grass.
Like so many other institutions, those local courts have adapted. There are about 80 municipal courts in the St. Louis area, and at least two-thirds of them are now offering a video court option.
Many are using a protocol developed by St. Louis County Circuit Judge Renee Hardin-Tammons. Before she was appointed to the bench in 2017, Hardin-Tammons spent years in the county’s municipal court system, giving her a unique perspective on the impact of shutting down those courts for an extended period.
“It doesn’t allow for people to really have the access to the system as they should,” she said. “I think some of the citizens are going to be quite anxious. They really want to know what’s going on.”
Hardin-Tammons' system is extensive, covering such steps as what to send to defendants ahead of their court dates and how to use a virtual background on Zoom. The protocol was finalized in May, and Andrea Niehoff, the municipal judge in Frontenac, started using it for her June docket.
“It’s amazing how effective it’s been,” Niehoff said. “We’ve had wonderful turnout, and participants seem to love it.”
To conduct virtual court, Niehoff, her prosecutor and the court administrator go to the courthouse, on Clayton Road near Interstate 64. The three are on separate computers and socially distanced. Defendants dial into Zoom when it’s their turn.
“It does take a little more time from the court’s perspective, because we have a check-in process and then court,” Niehoff said. “We stagger the docket because we don't want to be overwhelmed with 100 people at the same time.”
It took University City’s municipal court a little longer to make the switch — a delay that had more to do with a nationwide shortage of video conferencing equipment than a philosophical objection to virtual courts.
“The equipment that we need, all the other courts need,” said City Manager Gregory Rose. “And you couple that with more people working from home, it just exacerbated the problem of trying to purchase the equipment that was needed.”
University City was finally able to secure the cameras and software, Rose said. He expects virtual court to begin Sept. 23.
Rose estimated the equipment cost about $15,000 and expressed hope to be reimbursed with federal coronavirus relief money.
Securing the needed equipment is often just the first complication in operating a virtual court. Joel Brett, the municipal judge in St. Charles County, worries about making sure defendants clearly understand what’s going on.
“That’s easier to do in person,” he said. “With someone standing in front of me, we’ve got all kinds of signs and information. Now, we put all that on our website, but at least if they’re here in front of me, I can verify what they know.”
And then there’s the basic issue of being able to access platforms like Zoom and WebEx, said University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor Beth Huebner.
“If people are required to go to court virtually, they have to have access to the internet,” she said. “And they not only have to have access to the internet itself, but pretty strong internet.”
Huebner’s research found that many of the people who spent time in the St. Louis County jail over the last six months returned to areas of the county that lack high-speed internet, and many places with free access, like some libraries, are closed. These communities — overwhelmingly but not exclusively in North County — are also the ones that have the most interaction with the municipal court system, she said.
“And we have to remember that if you don't comply with court orders, then you can be given a failure to appear and have future sanctions because of that,” Huebner said.
Courts are making accommodations, Hardin-Tammons said. Zoom conferences always have a call-in option, and defendants can contact the court and ask for a new court date when in-person appearances become an option again.
It will be up to the Missouri Supreme Court to decide whether virtual court proceedings are allowed to continue after courts fully reopen. Niehoff, the municipal judge in Frontenac, hopes the judges say yes.
“We've had people that were literally at work and were able to appear for their court night instead of having to take off work,” she said. “We have people with small children, they don't have to get a sitter or bring their small child to court. We have people that don't have valid driver's licenses.”
It will be a while before such a decision would affect St. Louis County, however. Under guidelines established in May, courtrooms in the county won’t reopen for at least another month.
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