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As COVID-19 infections continued to rise in Kansas City, Missouri, in January, the KC Municipal Court took a step back and returned to virtual operations for a few days. The statistics behind the decision were grim: About 20% of all court workers were infected or isolating due to close contact with an infected person.
On a typical weekday, the halls of the court building in Downtown Kansas City are crowded with people awaiting court dates for traffic offenses and violations of city ordinances. The court hears an average of 100 domestic violence cases a day and operates special courts for housing code violations, minor drug offenses, defendants in need of mental health treatment and veterans. In all, it handles more than 200,000 cases a year.
During the shutdown, instead of shuffling into bustling courtrooms, defendants logged on to WebEx, a videoconferencing platform, and made a first contact with the judge who will eventually decide their fate.
“People don’t necessarily have to go to other city meetings (during the pandemic),” said Benita Jones, Municipal Court public information officer. “But people have to go to court.”
This isn’t the first time the court has gone virtual during the pandemic. In 2020, it shifted to remote hearings several times. In 2021, it officially introduced a hybrid model: first arraignments would be virtual and hearings thereafter would be in person.
For the moment, the court has reopened for in-person services, but another closure in the future is possible. The Beacon put together a guide for navigating the shifting circumstances within Missouri’s largest municipal court.
- Under what circumstances will the KC Municipal Court go virtual?
- Are there any cases that must be dealt with in person?
- What are my rights during a virtual hearing?
- What if I miss a virtual hearing?
- Are virtual hearings still open to the public?
- What impact does going virtual have on the Municipal Court’s ability to resolve cases?
A Missouri Supreme Court ruling left the choice on whether to go remote during the pandemic largely up to individual courts. A letter written by Chief Justice Paul Wilson noted that the delta variant made it more important than ever to allow local courts more flexibility.
“As conditions wax and wane, our response needs to do so as well,” he said. “The unprecedented public health concerns presented by COVID-19 and, now, by this highly transmissible variant require all of us to remain vigilant and willing to implement, without delay, recommended measures to ensure the safety of those who work and appear in our facilities.”
No single metric will persuade the Municipal Court presiding judge to call for virtual operations, Jones said. The most recent decision was largely informed by the number of staff illnesses. Before the latest closure, the court continued to require masks, though they could be removed if a party was speaking directly to the judge.
Domestic violence cases must be heard in person through all stages of the process. Trials of any kind will also be in person, as will hearings in the drug, mental health and veterans “treatment courts.”
Other cases will have an initial virtual arraignment, followed by in-person hearings. If the court is remote during a scheduled in-person hearing, defendants will receive a continuance and will not be penalized. During the closure from Jan. 18 to Jan. 26, defendants were granted a minimum 30-day continuance.
Defendant rights remain the same, whether in-person or virtual. Lawyers can accompany and advocate for a defendant virtually.
However, defendants may see an increased wait time during virtual proceedings. Municipal Court officials tell people to expect up to an hour waiting time past their scheduled arraignment, as there are multiple cases handled in the same time period.
A defendant who misses a virtual hearing will be assigned an in-person hearing at the Municipal Court, Jones said. If they miss that hearing, a warrant will be issued for their arrest. For non-arrestable violations, such as parking tickets, a defendant may have their driving privileges suspended.
Virtual hearings are still open to the public. They can be viewed through WebEx, which will require a viewer to download it before use, or through YouTube live streams. Instructions on how to watch virtual proceedings can be found on the Municipal Court’s website.
Judges retain the right to remove someone from virtual proceedings for distracting behavior, such as persistent interrupting.
Because of the continuances required when the court closes, COVID-19 has resulted in a backlog of cases in the system. To help remedy the issue, the court introduced a campaign called #ResolveIt in February 2021, which allowed people to cancel warrants and pay fines at a discounted rate.
The program ended in March 2021, and the court has not taken action to renew it at this point. More than 5,000 warrants were dismissed as a result of the campaign.