Video hearings add safety, cut costs

Chelle Delaney

Video technology is now part of the legal proceedings in the Quay County Magistrate Court in Tucumcari.

One of the last magistrate courts in New Mexico to have the technology installed for arraignments of detainees, Magistrate Judge Edwin Bruhn has been conducting video arraignments for the past three months.

In fact, one of the county’s most recent high profile cases, the arraignment of two Tucumcari residents in connection with the death of 12-year-old Augustine “Augie” Montiel was conducted via video.

“The video arraignments are a safety feature for courtroom personnel, the judge, police and it’s a cost savings because the detainees don’t have to be transported by an officer,” Bruhn said.

An arraignment is a court hearing following the arrest of someone for a crime. In the arraignment the person is advised of the charges filed against them and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.

Between 15 to 20 video arraignments are conducted weekly in the Quay County Magistrate Court.

Statewide, 92 district, municipal and magistrate courts have had the video system installed, said Pauline Trujillo, technology project manager of the Administrative Office of the Courts in Santa Fe. About two-thirds have been in magistrate courts.

The project began in 2001 and is now nearing full completion, she said. It’s estimated that about $2 million was spent installing the systems in the magistrate courts. The administrative office will maintain the systems, she said.

Trujillo said an early cost-benefit analysis of time and salaries, among other things, showed a $1 million savings annually. “And you can’t put a number on the safety of courtroom personnel or prisoners,” she added.

Another feature of the program is the ability to conduct cross county video communications as well video arraignments, she said.

For example, Magistrate Judge Karen Mitchell of Harding County in Roy has been able to conduct video arraignments with detainees in Portales and Tucumcari.

“We don’t have a detention center, so detainees would have to transported to Roy,” she said. By using the video, she says she saves on travel time and is able to keep her court open as well as conduct arraignments.

The way the system is set up, a judge sees and conducts live conversations with a detainee and vice versa on a large TV screen. The judge can also video someone in the courtroom, such as an attorney or family member, so that a someone in the detention center can view and talk them as well.

Trujillo said the courts worked with district attorneys and public defenders to make sure that court and jail standards were maintained. They created a video that is shown to detainees prior to the arraignments. “The video explains their rights and how the process works. We also have that video in English, Spanish, and Navajo.”

Even though the Tucumcari jail is only two blocks from the Magistrate Court, jail administrator Anthony Elebario, said, “I think its saving costs in transportation. It’s also saving us a lot of time.”