Zoom and Videoconferencing
For months, Covid-19 stopped courts throughout the country from operating normally. In 2020, people avoided indoor gatherings as disease and uncertainty swept the nation. This unwillingness to meet in person gave technology the chance to solve that problem in the courtroom. Whether Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Cisco’s Webex, technology paved the way for courts to handle matters without risking spread. But, does videoconferencing, rather than appearing in person, violate Due Process during a hearing to terminate parental rights (TPR)? The Third District Court of Appeal answers the question in the coincidentally titled I.T. v. Department of Children and Families.
Court in a Covid Reality
The Department of Children and Families (DCF) seeks to terminate a mother’s parental rights to four of her five children. I.T., to protect the mother’s identity, objects. At a final hearing held over Zoom, a judge terminates I.T.’s rights to all four children. Despite some glitches, I.T. participates in the hearing. On appeal, I.T. argues that videoconferencing in general, and specifically in her case, violates her constitutional right to Due Process.
To begin, the Third District discusses the state of Florida’s judicial system. Besides writing opinions, the Florida Supreme Court handles court administration for the whole state. Sometimes it issues rules about legal procedure. Sometimes it issues rules address practical situations.
To stop pandemic related delays in March 2020, the Florida Supreme Court authorizes the use of videoconferencing to conduct court. In May 2020, Miami Dade County authorizes the use of Zoom to conduct TPR hearings if the parties consent. Thus, the Court explains the ability to hold a hearing over Zoom.
Due Process Applied to Videoconferencing
Interestingly, I.T. never raises this issue to the trial court. Normally, parties must raise arguments to the trial court for an appellate court to consider them. Check out the discussion on Appeals to learn more about the process. However, this is a unique situation. Because the denial of Due Process creates fundamental error, I.T. can assert this for the first time on appeal.
At its core, Due Process affords people the opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner. To evaluate a Due Process violation, the court considers three factors: the private interest affected, risk of erroneous deprivation of such interest and the government’s interest. Then, the court weighs all the factors to find the proper result.
First, the court says the private interest favor the mother. It knows the importance of taking away children from a parent.
Second, the risk of erroneous deprivation favors the DCF. You don’t have the absolute right to physically appear in court. Courts can hold probation violation and sentencing hearings over videoconference. If the connection fails, there could be an issue. But when I.T. experienced technical difficulties, the court stopped the hearing to help her. In this case, the court gave I.T. the chance to see the evidence, present argument, examine witnesses just as if she appeared in person.
Third, remote hearings serve the government’s interest. Congested dockets slow down justice. Nothing gets done. They keep children from finding permanence. They cost the taxpayers more. Because videoconferencing reduces these issues, it promotes efficiency.
Zoom in General and As Applied
When weighing the three factors, the Third District rules for the DCF. In general, the use of Zoom does not offend Due Process. Courts can use videoconferencing for these TPR hearings. As Applied, Zoom did not affect I.T.’s ability to defend herself. When tech problems arose, the court stopped the hearing until I.T. could participate again. She had the opportunity to examine witnesses, etc. as if she attended in person. Therefore, the factors balance in favor of the DCF.
Read the I.T. v. Department of Children and Families opinion here!
Talk to an Experienced Florida Criminal Defense Attorney!
On a related note, criminal court judges have used videoconferencing for years. When judges set bonds at first appearances, they do so over video. In the past, every single person traveled to the courthouse after they were arrested to see a judge. But there’s a big problem. Transporting around 100 inmates daily at the same time to the same place creates lots of safety concerns. For these short hearings, it makes little sense. Now, inmates can appear in court from jail.
Talk to Jared at Brown Legal PLLC about Zoom or videoconferencing! He’s an Ivy League educated former prosecutor with over 15 years experience! The criminal defense firm Brown Legal PLLC operates from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but regularly handles cases throughout South Florida and the rest of the state. He’s represented people as far away as Pensacola and as far south as Key West. Reach out over the phone at (954) 524-6700 or through the Contact Page if you have any questions.