Technology brings help, headaches to courtrooms

KENNEWICK — New technology is bringing both headaches and help to Washington courtrooms.

Jurors are repeatedly reminded not to do any research on their smartphones or computers in the middle of a trial, but that hasn’t stopped some from using their electronic devices to tweet about their cases or post a status update on Facebook, the Tri-City Herald reported in Sunday’s newspaper.

Court officers say what may seem like an innocent action, can lead to the dismissal of a juror and halt a trial or reverse a verdict.

These headaches haven’t stopped Washington’s courts from using the same technology to their advantage.

In Benton and Franklin County, for example, Superior Court clerks use iPads to register potential jurors as they arrive. They also use technology to keep jurors moving and to give updates.

Court administrator Pat Austin believes the court is the first in the country with the iPad juror system check-in.

Court clerks use a scanner that is no bigger than a tube of lipstick, hold it over the barcode on the jury summons and the information is relayed through wirelessly from the iPad back to the jury management database and updated in real time.

The Benton County and Franklin county iPads were bought as part of a trial court improvement project and also are being used by administrators to communicate from the courtroom with the case management system in their offices.

The Legislature reallocates money back to each county based on its number of District Court judges. That money, which comes from the judges’ salaries, along with a separate allotment from case filing fees, must be used in local courts for improvements.

Benton County gets about $30,000 per quarter and Franklin County got $25,000 for 2011.

Along with the jury check-in program, Benton County court officials plan to buy new headsets for interpreters; a revamped sound system in two courtrooms over the next three years; and improved audio in the jail courtroom that is used by District Court.

Also in January, airport-style reader boards will be installed on a wall just inside the security checkpoint at the Benton County Justice Center. Superior Court and District Court cases will be listed alphabetically and show the courtroom where each one is being handled in attempt to cut down on the number of questions clerks and administrative employees get from confused people, Austin said.

She said the state money has “really helped the county out, as well as the courts …. We’ve been able to get some improvements without taxing funds that are needed for other projects.”

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