Massachusetts Court Denies Defendant’s Appeal Based on Virtual Hearing During COVID-19 Pandemic

In a recent opinion coming out of a Massachusetts court, the defendant contested the fact that his hearing had been held over Zoom instead of in person. Appealing his guilty verdict, the defendant said his constitutional rights were violated because he was limited to a remote setting. Given the procedures that courts are currently taking because of COVID-19, the court rejected the defendant’s appeal.

The Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, the defendant in this case was charged with assault and battery on a family member as well as strangulation. He was being held in prison in March 2020; at the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep across the nation. During this time, Massachusetts courts limited in-person court proceedings to emergency matters only. Nonemergency matters were moved to virtual hearings, and defendants appeared at their hearings via Zoom.

In this case, the defendant received a bench trial conducted partially in person and partially online. All participants appeared in person except for the defendant and one of the Commonwealth’s witnesses (a neighbor of the defendant), both of whom participated in the hearing over Zoom. At the end of the hearing, the judge found the defendant guilty of simple assault and battery. The defendant was sentenced to time in prison.

The Court’s Decision and Analysis

On appeal, the defendant argued that the virtual trial violated several of his constitutional rights. For example, the defendant raised the issue that if the trial had been in person, he would have been able to see the people who testified against him face-to-face. Under the constitution, defendants have the right to “meet the witnesses against him” in person. Seeing the witnesses through a video monitor was not the same, said the defendant, and therefore his rights were violated.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument in this realm, concluding that even though in-person interaction is indeed superior to virtual interaction, the fact that the defendant did not see the witnesses in person did not substantially influence the judge’s decision at trial.

The defendant also argued that he had a constitutional right to be present at trial, not just present on a video screen. Again, the court looked to whether or not the defendant’s absence substantially influenced the judge’s decision. During the trial, the defendant could see his attorney, the judge, and the witnesses over Zoom. Because there were no technological problems and because the judge consistently checked in with the defendant to make sure he could hear everyone speaking, there was no evidence to conclude that the trial’s outcome would have been any different if the defendant were actually present in the courtroom.

For each complaint the defendant made about the virtual setting, the court rejected the defendant’s argument. The court concluded that none of the defendant’s issues were significant enough to change the outcome of the trial. The court did, however, write guidelines for other hearings that would happen over Zoom. When a defendant is to appear over Zoom, said the court, the judge must make sure he understands that he has the option to appear in person. The defendant must totally understand the procedures of a virtual hearing, and the judge must make sure that the defendant has had the chance to discuss the virtual hearing with an attorney before proceeding.

Are You Facing Criminal Charges in Massachusetts?

If you or a loved one has been criminally charged with assault or another violent crime in Massachusetts, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic might affect your options moving forward. At the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy, we stay informed on how courts are operating in the midst of the pandemic, and we offer representation that is sensitive to the ever-changing guidelines in play. For a free and confidential consultation on your criminal charges, contact our office by calling 617-367-0450.

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