Return to Justice: Courthouse Structure Limits Tech Advancement

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The COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly fast-tracked Baltimore City Circuit Court’s implementation of more video and audio technology. Yet, despite this imposed advancement, some defense attorneys aren’t convinced the age-old courthouse buildings are capable of additional and necessary technological advancement, citing long-standing issues with the structure of the building. 

Prior to the pandemic, defense attorney Roya Hanna said, few courtrooms were equipped for video conferencing–a technology that has now spread to almost every courtroom and is used to conduct bail and motion hearings as well as reception, mental health, and postponement court.

The transition to virtual court proceedings required each courtroom to be fitted with cameras and microphones that were capable of using Zoom technology, a teleconferencing software program that only a handful of courtrooms were equipped with beforehand, said Hanna, who is currently running for Baltimore City State’s Attorney.

The process was “much more difficult” than the courthouse anticipated, she said, noting that other courthouses in the state, such as Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, did not struggle as much with the transition.

The defense attorney said what makes upgrading Baltimore City’s 100-year-old courthouse buildings, that stand on opposite sides of Calvert Street, more difficult than other courthouses has a lot to do with the physical structure. For example, the buildings’ marble floors interfere with the WiFi signal.

“I think they’ve remedied that with hotspots everywhere, but it took a while to get up to that,” Hanna said.

Maryland Judiciary Public Information Officer Bradley Tanner said 55 MiFi/hotspot wireless routers are used in both the Cummings and Mitchell Courthouses at different times.

The first use of audio and video recording equipment dates back to 1989 when courtrooms were located on the second floor of the Cummings Courthouse. Tanner said there were only four new courtrooms that were equipped with audio visual recordings, specifically VHS systems with microphones and cameras, as opposed to live court reporters.

The courthouse later incorporated a digital recording system in 2007, Tanner said, connecting each courtroom via cables to their respective servers.

Obiora Dallah, the courthouses’ public information officer, said Baltimore City is not where everyone else is in terms of technology.

“The reason they are making Baltimore City the last one is because there are technological issues,” said Dallah, who declined to elaborate.

The courthouses’ original design did not incorporate modern technology. Instead, Tanner said, the walls “significantly reduce the wireless signal.”

“There are complex mounting requirements for wireless access points due to the decorative marble wall and facades,” he said. “Access points cannot be mounted to some ceilings considering the historical designations and requirements. There are major constraints in building design to facilitate distribution facilities and cable plant standards.”

Renovate or Relocate

Talks of the courthouses’ renovation and/or relocation of the circuit court have been ongoing for more than a decade, beginning with the city’s request for a feasibility study from the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) that was completed in April 2011.

The MSA and then-Baltimore City Administrative Judge Michel Pierson further discussed two possible scenarios for the courthouses’ renovations and/or relocation of the circuit court in October 2016, followed by an alternative use study that was completed in December 2018.

The MSA estimated the process would cost between $500 million and $800 million to renovate and expand the circuit court, which would take approximately five to eight years. Relocation to the Metro West building on the 300 and 400 blocks of N. Greene Street was also under discussion and would’ve cost between $375 million and $425 million, taking three to four years to complete.

The relocation excluded the cost of the property itself, the MSA report noted, which was purchased by Caves Valley Partners for approximately $7.1 million in 2016.

On Feb. 28, MSA Public Information Officer Rachelina Bonacci informed Baltimore Witness that MSA has not performed any work for the circuit court since 2018.

Baltimore City has not announced any current plans to renovate the existing courthouse buildings or construct a new courthouse. 

A Need to Start from Scratch

Defense attorney Warren Brown agreed that the structure of the buildings has limited the ability to update technology, adding that the only way for the Baltimore courthouses to truly advance is by starting from scratch.

“[The city] needs a new courthouse … a modern courthouse,” Brown said.

To keep up with the large caseload in the city, Brown explained that Baltimore needs a better building layout, potentially one that mirrors the courthouses in surrounding counties. According to Brown, courthouses in the surrounding counties have a much better physical plan. However, they operate on a much smaller scale than Baltimore City, making it easier for technological advancement.

Surrounding counties, such as Montgomery County, have significantly more technology standards in each courtroom compared to Baltimore City. According to the Maryland State Bar Association, wide-screen televisions, audio and video teleconferencing, document cameras, and Blu-ray players are standard in each of the county’s courtrooms and do not need to be requested in advance. 

In Prince George’s County, a request only needs to be made 72 hours in advance, and the standard equipment is capable of basic presentations in each courtroom.

However, in Baltimore City, standard equipment is limited and varies by courtroom, requiring attorneys to contact the judge to see what is available in the courtroom. If counsel needs to borrow equipment for audio or visual presentations, requests must be made two weeks in advance.

Even if Baltimore City is able renovate the existing buildings or relocate to another building, another obstacle arises. How can the courts remain operational during renovation or relocation? Functionality is particularly important in Baltimore, a city with a backlog of more than 1600 cases that Brown said prevents advancement. 

The only answers Brown said he can think of is that there are “too few judges to deal with the backlog of criminal and civil cases or they’re just lazy and not working hard.”

A new courthouse may seem like the easiest solution to the myriad of problems with the current buildings, but Hanna said efforts to do so haven’t made progress in over a decade.

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