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Court of Appeals strikes down sentencing by jailhouse video

Jul 15, 2016

The Michigan Court of Appeals says convicted felons must be sentenced in person, and not via a video hookup between the jail and the courthouse.

Video links are commonly used for early procedures like arraignments, because it’s less expensive and more secure than moving defendants between the jail and the courthouse. 

Using video links for sentencing is still rare. But in this case out of Hillsdale County, defendant Trenity Heller was sentenced via video from jail while everyone else – including his lawyer – was at the courthouse.

Christopher Smith of the State Appellate Defenders office said a defendant has a right to consult privately with his attorney, and have meaningful interactions with the prosecutor and the judge.

“And the Court of Appeals has held that’s just not something you can accomplish on a two-dimensional screen,” he said. “It’s got to be face to face.”

From the appeals court’s unanimous opinion:

“A defendant’s right to allocute before sentence is passed—to look a judge in the eye in a public courtroom while making his plea—stems from our legal tradition’s centuries-old recognition of a defendant’s personhood, even at the moment he is condemned to prison.”

Also:

“Undoubtedly, two-way interactive video technology saves courts money and time, and dramatically lessens security concerns. But in the felony sentencing context, it is simply inconsistent with the intensely personal nature of the process … Sentencing by video dehumanizes the defendant who participates from a jail location, unable to privately communicate with his or her counsel and likely unable to visualize all the participants in the courtroom.” 

That’s why most courts and judges have continued to sentence defendants in person, said Saint Clair County Prosecutor Mike Wendling, who the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan. He says there are advantages to using video hookups, but that’s at a cost. 

“It does provide for a heightened level of security because you don’t have to move a defendant,” he said, “but we certainly understand the position of the Court of Appeals that it does dehumanize the defendant.”

Wendling says the biggest effect is probably courts that were contemplating an experiment with video sentencing will no longer have the option.