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January 18 2012

15:20

OpenCourt Coaxes Out More Data with Cooperative Coverage Day

A version of this post first appeared on the OpenCourt blog.

A man charged with selling drugs inside the courthouse. A woman said to have shoplifted $5 worth of barbeque chicken wings. A man charged with multiple counts of raping a child with force. A longtime Drug Court participant booted from the program for taking a non-narcotic pill (still against the rules). Everyone brought back to court owing fees or victim restitution in previously dismissed cases. A man on psychotropic medication charged with shoplifting a Stop and Shop cart full of meat and pulling a knife when confronted in the parking lot. A naked hiker in the Blue Hills whose defense to lewd behavior is being raised as a naturist. OUIs. Restraining order hearings. A wife sectioning her husband for alcoholism.

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OpenCourt has been streaming public court hearings from the First Session courtroom in the Quincy District Court in Massachusetts since May of 2011. We've received feedback about how our viewers use and value the footage, and we realize it would be useful to show more of the court's daily business -- not just the cross-section that comes through the First Session.

While holding to our goal to carve a plausible model for other courthouses, we've often asked ourselves how we and other journalists around the country could do a better job shedding light on a bigger portion of the iceberg's tip, and not necessarily using as much expensive technology.

In other words, just how much business does all of Quincy District Court do in a single day? How can we more fully capture the breadth of cases heard, day in and day out?

Cooperative Coverage

To help answer these questions, last month we hosted a cooperative coverage event at the court, an open invitation to citizen and traditional journalists alike to help us gather notes about everything that transpires in the building's six public courtrooms.

Our combined notes, which you can read here on our blog -- gathered between myself, our producer Val Wang, two Patriot Ledger reporters, two Harvard Berkman interns, one State House News reporter, and three citizen journalists -- are inevitably incomplete. But we hope this coming together shows more fully the wide array of hearings before the court, the sheer volume of cases, and the fact that this is all happening every day, outside of normal public view.

We realized it's easier than you might think for loosely affiliated citizens to collaborate on a one-off project (read: Twitter + Google Docs).

There were unsurprisingly a wide variety of cases. Some rough tallies: Assault & Battery (15, of which 3 were labeled as domestic violence), disorderly conduct (4), trespassing (3), resisting arrest (1), uninsured and/or unlicensed motor vehicle operation (5), speeding (3), shoplifting (5), larceny over $250 (1), receiving stolen property (2), distribution of an illegal substance (3), section 35 (1), sealed record request (3), interpreter needed (1).

This day was exceptional not by any standard of caseload or substance, only that more of us were there to see it and relay stories. For me and Val, the longer we're in court streaming, the clearer it is that we're sitting on a relatively unchecked sociological goldmine.

Opening Court Data

These notes from last month's experiment are, at the least, a compelling glance at the river of data flowing through our local courts every single day.

At best they offer a new angle on approaching larger questions: How do we get to a place where public court data is more accessible? Why aren't the stats being tracked more extensively and automatically in the name of scientifically diagnosing societal ills?

The Boston Globe recently published an extensive three-part series on Massachusetts drunken driving prosecutions, which undoubtedly required massive reporting energy. While that energy will always be required for strong narrative journalism, shouldn't reporters and the public at large alike have easier access to court proceedings to begin with? Wouldn't the state be better off if tracking the operation of its courts didn't require the Herculean effort of a crack, paid investigative team?

Thanks again to everyone who helped make this possible. Our aim at this point, as always, is to provide a window into the everyday landscape of our legal system. Beyond that, we hope efforts like this lead to smarter methods to inform and awaken the public -- to be a better radar for a community's prevalent crimes.

What do you think? What do you see? What should we do differently if we host another event like this?

March 10 2011

14:00

Why We Won't Live-Stream Restraining Order Hearings

One of the first questions people ask when I tell them about our project, Order in the Court 2.0, to live-stream court proceedings is, "Is there a way to turn the camera off?" They must imagine a camera bolted to the wall, gobbling up images of domestic violence victims and child sex offenders with no regard to how it affects justice being served.

But I have the opposite fear too -- that the judges in those courtrooms will become so skittish that they'll keep turning the camera off and we'll lose the ideal of openness that is the purpose of our project and a cornerstone of that little thing we call democracy.

So this question of when to keep the camera on and when to turn it off is a complicated one that involves balancing transparency with privacy. It has provoked more controversy than any other question that we've posed.

Knowing that we had a range of viewpoints from "show everything" to "protect the privacy of victims," we asked the Cyberlaw Clinic out of Harvard Law School to put together a preliminary checklist of reasons that the camera could potentially be turned off and took the list to meetings with both local and high-level stakeholders to get their input.

We want to work towards a list of loose guidelines that could guide the judges and clerks, while causing the least amount of interference with the court's business.

First, a little bit about our setup. There will always be a producer present when the camera is on, but it will be the judge and the clerk who actually turn it on and off.

Down in Quincy

We met with the local group in Quincy District Court first. We first ruled out certain proceedings from live-streaming: any cases involving minors or the victims of sexual abuse or assault; and any part of the voir dire or jury empanelment hearings. We also won't be showing the faces of jurors.

Participants brought up the statues that protect the privacy of criminal records and mental health records and we debated how to deal with those cases.

Then came the cases that are up to the judge's discretion. First Justice Mark Coven reiterated that all proceedings were free to be live-streamed but that he would be willing to consider turning off the camera on a case-by-case basis. If a lawyer or advocate has good reason to object to a proceeding being filmed, he or she may file a motion. Judge Coven has said he doesn't want to scare women off from applying for a restraining order.

People at the meeting brought up cases that they could imagine objecting to. These cases tended to fall into three major categories: the protection of victims, of witnesses and of defendants. For example:

  • A woman filing for a restraining order who won't go forward with it if she has to appear before the camera.
  • A spouse or parent committing a family member for substance abuse who doesn't want the community to know about their family problem.
  • An inflammatory sexual assault allegation that the defense has reason to believe is fabricated.
  • An identification case.

The defense lawyers and the representative of DOVE, the domestic violence advocacy group, were satisfied with the result, saying that we can't fully know how people will react to the camera until the project really begins.

Meanwhile, back up in Boston

When we put the same issues before our advisory board, they came up with the opposite answer to the question about restraining order hearings.

We recruited for our advisory board the same constellation of diverse viewpoints as we did with the local group, with the idea that they could offer us a kaleidoscopic view of the court. When we debated whether or not to show the restraining orders, we saw their full range of opinions.

We presented one of the arguments for showing the restraining order proceedings that had come out of our local meetings: the idea that a domestic violence victim watching at home might see the process and understand that she (or he) could come down to the court to apply for one themselves.

The representative of the Massachusetts Bar Association disagreed with this, saying that there are better ways to educate the public and that showing the proceedings could both expose the victim to more physical danger and public humiliation as well as permanently damage the reputation of those who have restraining orders filed against them that are eventually denied.

The head of the D.A.'s Victim Witness Services department concurred, saying that this project "can't afford a body."

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy also agreed, saying that family issues are too sensitive and too fraught with peril to live-stream, at least at the beginning stages of our project.

The only objection came from a Boston University law professor and former ACLU counsel who said that if reporters are allowed into the courtroom, then our cameras should be too. (He also made the disclaimer that as an academic he doesn't really have a dog in the race.)

Justice Cordy said that in theory that's how we would like to operate but in reality there are perils of opening the court through technology. He said he didn't want this issue to trip up the project right at the beginning and that we should revisit the issue later.

These comments drove home to us the seriousness of our project and the impact it might have on people's lives. We want to proceed carefully.

Back in Quincy, Judge Coven disagreed with the advisory board's decision, saying that he believed live-streaming the proceedings would show what a big problem domestic violence is in Quincy, but that he would abide by the decision. He plans to move sensitive cases to other courtrooms rather than turning on and off the camera.

With all of this input, we'll be finalizing the checklist of guidelines soon.

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