BOSTON (SHNS) – The Supreme Judicial Court ruled Wednesday that individuals can wait for in-person court hearings if they do not want to meet virtually.
The 37-page decision, authored by Justice Elspeth Cypher, concerned whether the use of internet-based video conferencing platforms like Zoom for hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic violated constitutional rights.
“We conclude that a virtual hearing is not a per se violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the decision read.
The defendant in the case, John Vazquez Diaz, waived his right to a speedy trial and sought to delay an evidentiary hearing on a motion to suppress evidence and statements related to charges of trafficking in 200 or more grams of cocaine until he could meet in-person, according to court documents.
After several requests to delay the hearing, the judge in the case ordered that a hearing take place over Zoom. The defendant filed a motion objecting to the virtual meeting, according to court documents, and requested to wait until an in-person hearing could be held.
In denying the motion, the SJC concluded the judge “who had to make a decision in unchartered territory, abused her discretion.”
“The defendant here wishes to continue his hearing until it may be held in-person, but even with the recent distribution of the vaccine, we cannot say for how long the virus might persist,” Cypher wrote in the decision. “For many defendants, the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic may extend far too long to wait for an in-person hearing.”
Writing separately, Chief Justice Scott Kafker agreed with the court’s ruling and advised that “judges must be acutely attentive to the subtle and not so subtle distorting effects on perception and other potential problems presented by virtual evidentiary hearings.”
“Although the scholarship of these effects and problems is still developing and requires rigorous testing in court, it raises concerns that require a cautious approach, particularly after the pandemic ends and our courtrooms can return to some semblance of normal,” he wrote.