Confronting an Accuser via Zoom: The SJC Considers the Constitutionality of Virtual Evidentiary Hearings

Brett D. Lovins_resized

by Brett D. Lovins 

Case Focus

In Vazquez Diaz v. Commonwealth, 487 Mass. 336 (2021), the Supreme Judicial Court confronted the novel question of whether, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a virtual evidentiary suppression hearing violates a defendant’s constitutional rights. The Court concluded that such a virtual hearing during the pandemic is not a per se violation of a defendant’s right to be present, to confrontation, to a public hearing, or to effective assistance of counsel, and instead determined that videoconferencing technology can create a close approximation of the courtroom setting. However, under the specific facts of the case, the Court also held that the motion judge abused her discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to continue where he waived his speedy trial rights and where a delay would not substantially harm the government’s case, especially since there were no civilian victims or witnesses.

Background

John W. Vazquez Diaz, charged with drug trafficking in the Superior Court, sought an evidentiary hearing on his suppression motion. After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the judge ordered the hearing to proceed via Zoom. The defendant objected, waived his speedy trial rights, and requested that the case be continued until an in-court proceeding could be held. The judge denied the request, and the defendant filed a direct appeal pursuant to G. L. c. 211, § 3. The single justice reserved and reported the matter to the full Court.

The Opinion

In the opinion, authored by Justice Cypher, the Court addressed—and rejected—the defendant’s State and Federal constitutional arguments.

As to the defendant’s right to be present during a critical stage of the proceedings, derived from article 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Court concluded that under certain circumstances, a suppression hearing could be held by videoconference so long as the technology provided adequate safeguards. The Court reasoned that Zoom could “approximate a live physical hearing” and “effectively safeguard the defendant’s right to be present” by permitting him to listen to evidence, adequately observe the testifying witnesses, and privately consult with counsel using virtual, private Zoom “breakout rooms.” Id. at 342. Nevertheless, the Court determined that under the particular circumstances of the case and in light of the “exceptional circumstances” of the pandemic, the judge abused her discretion by denying the defendant’s motion to continue. Id. at 344 & n.13. The Court opined, however, that the government’s “significant” interest in protecting public health “combined with its interest in the timely disposition of a case, would, in many instances, outweigh the defendant’s interest in an in-person hearing.” Id. at 343.

As to the defendant’s argument that a virtual hearing deprived him of his right to confrontation, the Court joined a minority of states to hold for the first time that the confrontation right extends to suppression hearings. But it concluded that, under art. 12, a virtual evidentiary hearing held during the pandemic is not a per se violation of that right, opining that videoconferencing (when functioning properly) closely approximates the courtroom because two-way video transmission permits live cross-examination and the defendant and the judge are virtually present onscreen and can see all the participants. As to the Sixth Amendment, the Court explained that the right may be satisfied without physical, face-to-face confrontation when necessary to further an important public policy and where the reliability of the testimony can be assured. It determined that protecting public health during the pandemic constituted an important public policy and two-way videoconferencing technology was sufficiently reliable, but ultimately demurred on whether a virtual hearing was necessary in light of its holding regarding the continuance motion.

The Court also rejected the defendant’s argument that a virtual hearing violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public hearing, concluding that a videoconference in which the public could join by telephone or Zoom was not a “constitutional closure” because the virtual nature of the hearing adjusted “only the forum” and “not the prospective audience.” Id. at 353. It reasoned that the limits on access were “no broader than necessary given the severity of the pandemic” and that the court provided virtual alternative access for those with the requisite technology. Id. at 354.

Finally, the Court rejected the defendant’s concerns about his right to the effective assistance of counsel under art. 12 and the Sixth Amendment, concluding that virtual hearings with virtual private breakout rooms are not a deprivation of that right. The Court noted that the defendant can interrupt the proceeding to confer with counsel, but also advised judges to confirm that the technology is functioning properly and encouraged judges to check with counsel periodically to ask whether their clients wished to confer.

The Concurrence

Justice Kafker authored a concurring opinion. Although he agreed with the Court’s conclusion that in this case the judge abused her discretion by denying the motion to continue, he wrote separately to emphasize the potential problems of virtual hearings and to implore judges to proceed cautiously. He noted that virtual hearings “may alter our evaluation of demeanor evidence, diminish the solemnity of the legal process, and affect our ability to use emotional intelligence, thereby subtly influencing our assessment of other participants.” Id. at 357 (Kafker, J., concurring). For example, he noted that body language is concealed, subpar lighting obscures facial expressions, eye contact is impossible, small images and diminished sound dilute the potential emotional impact, and even a participant’s Zoom background may trigger subconscious biases. He also noted the potential for technological problems, user errors, and accessibility issues. “Importantly,” he wrote, “access to reliable Internet is often dependent on income, socioeconomic background, and educational attainment,” and “[l]ack of Internet access is more common among racial minorities.” Id. at 366 n.16. Moreover, he expressed concern about the defendant’s confrontation rights, cautioning that “‘there is something deep in human nature that regards face-to-face confrontation between accused and accuser’ as essential to fairness, a concept that has ‘persisted over the centuries because there is much truth to it.’” Id. at 364–65 (quoting Coy v. Iowa, 487 U.S. 1012, 1017, 1019 (1988)).

Implications

In some ways, the Vazquez Diaz decision is narrow and case-specific: the motion judge abused her discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to continue during a pandemic where the defendant had waived his right to a speedy trial and a delay would not substantially harm the government’s case. But the holding leaves open the possibility that under different circumstances, a judge may proceed virtually over the defendant’s objection. This might include situations where there are costs to delay, including the prosecution’s ability to prove its case because evidence may disappear altogether or degrade as memories fade.

While the Court’s decision regarding the requested continuance may be seen as narrow, the Court did not limit its discussion to that issue. Rather, it broadened its focus to reach the significant issue of the constitutionality of virtual evidentiary hearings and found them permissible, despite the concerns articulated by Justice Kafker. If virtual evidentiary hearings continue to be used after the current pandemic when no longer necessary to protect public health, these constitutional issues will surely be the basis of future litigation.

In the meantime, the decision puts the onus on defense attorneys to vigilantly protect their clients’ rights. That might mean requesting a continuance rather than proceeding to a Zoom-based evidentiary hearing when it is in their clients’ best interests to do so. And when proceeding virtually, advocates must ensure their clients connect from a neutral location with stable internet, assume responsibility for requesting breakout rooms, object if circumstances impede the judge’s evaluation of a witness (e.g., poor lighting or distractions), and confirm that the judge monitors the hearing for technological problems.

The Court’s holding that the right to confrontation extends to evidentiary suppression hearings is a significant victory for criminal defendants. It is now up to trial courts and practitioners to ensure that confrontation—so essential to fairness—is not diluted in this new virtual world.

Brett D. Lovins is a criminal defense attorney at Lovins & Metcalf. He represents individuals accused of wrongdoing from the initial stages of investigation through appeals.


Effective Advocacy in a “Virtual” World

by Hon. Hélène Kazanjian

Voice of the Judiciary

We find ourselves during these difficult times trying to operate court business without parties actually coming to court. This is likely the “new normal.” In the short term, while we have begun to open courthouses for some in-person business, the court still encourages virtual hearings for most matters. In the longer term, it is possible that we will continue to handle some court business virtually for quite some time, if not forever.

Courts throughout the Commonwealth have been conducting virtual hearings for several months. It has unquestionably been an adjustment for everyone. Lawyers and judges have had to be flexible and patient as we have grappled with video and audio problems. Many have had to learn how to use virtual conferencing programs such as Zoom. We most certainly have had to keep our sense of humor as the occasional cat, dog, or young child makes a fleeting appearance at a hearing.

In light of these challenges and the limitations of the technology, how can lawyers most effectively advocate for their clients in a virtual environment?

First, it is important that lawyers understand how hearings are being conducted at the courthouses. The short answer is that it differs throughout the Commonwealth because technological capabilities vary. Despite these differences, in all instances, hearings have to be officially recorded, which generally requires the presence of a clerk in the courtroom. Judges will either be physically present in the courtroom or joining the hearing virtually. In some courtrooms, the clerk is able to connect the in-court For the Record (“FTR”) recording system to the virtual platform. Where that technology is not available, FTR will record the sound in the courtroom, which will ordinarily come out of small computer speakers built in or connected to the judge’s or clerk’s laptop.

With this backdrop, here are some suggestions to enhance your ability as lawyers to effectively advocate during a virtual hearing:

  1. Technology, technology, technology: First and foremost, make sure you have working technology. Minimally you need a computer or tablet with a camera, microphone, and speakers. You also need fast and reliable Wi-Fi. It is not ideal to be calling into a hearing from your cell phone. Cell phone callers often cannot join by video or cannot be heard well enough. You also may not be able to see all of the participants on your phone.
  2. Settings: Once you sign into a hearing, make sure the correct microphone is selected on your device. For example, if you are using an external webcam, you have to select the webcam as your operating microphone. The audio settings on your microphone and speakers must be loud enough. In Zoom, there are microphone and audio settings within the Zoom program. That means that in addition to checking the settings on your device, you need to check the program’s audio settings.
  1. Virtual workspace: Make sure you have a workspace that is conducive to a virtual hearing; that is, a place that allows you to participate without distraction. Trying to join a hearing from a cell phone in your car or from a computer in a room where there is other activity is not effective. Look directly at your camera and speak loudly into the microphone. Make sure your background, whether it is real or virtual, is presentable. Likewise, if you use a pin photo, which is an image that appears on your account when you shut down your video feed, make sure it is court appropriate. We know that many of you are juggling a lot. You may be working at home with other family members present who need your attention. That being said, do your best to set aside the scheduled time to focus on the hearing.
  2. Practice: Practice before you appear for your first virtual hearing. Find out in advance if your equipment and Wi-Fi work. Learn how to sign in with both video and audio, and how to adjust the microphone and speaker settings. Because the sound is sometimes better when the parties who are not speaking are muted, make sure you know how to mute and unmute yourself quickly.
  3. Identify yourself: So the record is clear, you should identify yourself each time you speak during the hearing, unless the court addresses you by name.
  4. Documents: If you have documents, pleadings, photographs or other items that you would like to use or “hand” to the judge during the hearing, or if you are planning to offer exhibits into evidence, make sure to get them to the clerk and the other participants in advance. Check with the clerk several days before the hearing about how he or she will accept these items (e.g. email, e-file, mail). Screen sharing can be an effective way to display documents during a hearing. Attorneys should check with the clerk in advance to make sure the host (the judge and/or clerk) is comfortable with that aspect of the technology.
  5. Other participants: In criminal cases, defendants will be present, or virtually present, unless their presence has been waived. Victims, witnesses, clients in civil cases, and members of the public should also be able to attend proceedings virtually, and, in some instances, give testimony. It is advisable to check with the clerk in advance if others want to attend a hearing. Make sure the individuals wanting to attend have the required technology to sign into the virtual call. If you are going to be questioning a witness about documents, pleadings, photographs, or other items, make sure the witness and all parties have copies of those items in advance. Speak to your client and/or witnesses before the hearing about how they should conduct themselves during the hearing so as to not distract from your arguments. It is not helpful to your case if your clients are rolling their eyes or shaking their heads during the hearing.
  6. Breakout rooms: If you and your client are in different locations and you need to speak privately during the hearing, if the court has the capacity you can ask the judge to send you to a virtual breakout room, where you can have a private/unrecorded conversation. This also can be done when multiple lawyers representing a single party or lawyers of different parties want to consult privately during a hearing. Alternatively, parties can mute themselves and briefly communicate with each other off-line.
  1. Demeanor: Conduct yourself in the hearing just as you would if you were in court. Address the judge not the other parties. The usual back and forth is not as easy so be prepared with a short presentation. At the same time, there is sometimes a sound delay, so be aware if the judge is trying to ask you a question. Finally, wear court appropriate attire.

The sudden switch to virtual hearings has required patience and a touch of ingenuity. In the end, virtual hearings can only work if we all accept and adjust to this new way of conducting court business, and if we commit to taking the necessary steps, including technology upgrades and individual training.

 

Judge Hélène Kazanjian has served as an Associate Justice of the Superior Court since 2016. Previously she served as the Chief of the Trial Division at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, and as an Assistant United States Attorney in Washington, D.C. and Maine.