Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Is this thing on?

Would you try a DWI case without a court reporter? What about an assault case? A dope case? A burglary case?

Would you even consider trying a case without a court reporter present?

That's what two legislators from Houston have in mind for the municipal courts in Houston. State Senator Joan Huffman and State Representative Beverly Woolley have filed bills (SB1879 and HB3807) that would allow the Houston Municipal Courts to conduct trials with a tape recorder taking the place of a court reporter.

What's the big deal, you might ask.

A court reporter can ask an attorney, the judge or a witness to repeat a question, an answer or a ruling from the bench. A tape recorder can't. (Take a look at an ALR hearing transcript and count the number of times the transcript says "unintelligible" for an answer.)

A court reporter can ask an attorney or a witness to speak slower or to speak louder. A tape recorder can't.

A court reporter can ask the attorneys, the judge or a witness not to talk over one another. A tape recorder can't.

A court reporter takes down everything that is said while "on the record." A tape recorder only records if it's turned on.

An attorney can obtain a transcript of a hearing by contacting the court reporter. If it's a recording -- you've got to go through the court.

An attorney or the judge can ask the court reporter to pull up specific testimony for review on a motion or for cross examination. No can do with the tape recorder. (Do you really think a municipal judge is going to play back an entire tape to get the answer to one or two questions on a motion for directed verdict?)

In the justice of the peace courts if you don't get a favorable decision your client can post an appeal bond and you get a fresh bite at the apple in county court. No such luck in municipal courts of record.

The purpose of these bills is to reduce the expense of running the municipal courthouse in Houston. It was the same rationale used to tell officers they could wait until 1pm to come to court even though the citizen accused of speeding had to appear at 8am.

Revenues are down because officers are writing fewer tickets and fewer cases are being cleared because it doesn't make sense to plead out a case if you don't know if the officer will appear after lunch. Now the city's taking aim at the due process rights of the accused by axing the court reporters.

I agree that it's only a Class C misdemeanor. But it was important enough for that motorist to hire an attorney to handle the case. In Texas, that motorist has the same rights to a trial by jury as does the man accused of capital murder.

Sacrificing due process to balance a budget is inexcusable.

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