Virtual courtroom to be built at Knox County detention center

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A virtual courtroom that will allow some legal hearings to take place at the county jail via the internet rather than face-to-face in a traditional courtroom was approved by Knox County Commission at its Monday meeting.

 Before approving the project, however, commissioners quizzed court and police officials over the potential for defendants’ rights to be violated. 

 “This the wave of the future and we have a chance to get on that,” said Mike Hammond, Knox County criminal court clerk. “And I don’t think it’s going to trample on people’s personal rights.” 

Commissioners ultimately voted 9-2 to approve the $1.5 million virtual courtroom, which is to be built at the Roger D. Wilson Detention Facility on Maloneyville Road. 

Commissioners Courtney Durrett and Dasha Lundy voted against it.

Opposition to the facility has stemmed from concerns that holding legal proceedings virtually could violate the constitutional right that all citizens have to face their accusers in court.

Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler said the courtrooms would be used mainly for arraignments and plea agreements while the pandemic continues.

“There aren’t going to be trials,” he said. “There aren’t going to be trials on the internet. Period.”

Proponents maintain the facility will allow court hearings to be held in a more efficient and less costly manner.

According to the sheriff’s office, it would save taxpayers by limiting trips from the detention center to the courtrooms in the City-County Building. Officials estimated the savings to be between $88,000 and $94,500 annually in gas costs, while money would also be saved by driving fewer miles in prisoner transport vans, extending the vehicles’ service lives.

Hammond announced midway through the meeting that his office would also put in $600,000 for the project — half now and half later. 

He acknowledged that the commission can’t earmark funds for projects, but said the overall increase in the budget would help concerns with costs. 

Durrett, one of the two commissioners who voted against the project, said that she felt the commission was moving too hastily without looking closely enough at the prisoners’ rights issue.

“I think it’s too much of, ‘Let’s push it through,’” she said. “’Let’s save money.’”

Hammond said the idea had not been hastily put together and instead had come from several weeks of meetings between different stakeholders, including his office, most judges, the sheriff’s office, the public defender’s office and the Knoxville Bar Association.

“It wasn’t that it just came up last week or last month,” he said.

It’s also not a new idea. Hamilton County, where Chattanooga is located, has been using virtual courtrooms for two to three years, he said. Hammond said he spoke with Hamilton County Criminal Court Clerk Vince Dean and was told there had been no problems with the system.

Some opponents of building the facility said they believed the county to be opening itself up to civil rights lawsuits but Hammond said he was told that Hamilton County had faced no lawsuits for its online courtrooms.

County officials also stressed that if a virtual courtroom is built then internet security should be a priority.

 Some residents were concerned that other programs might be cut to make room for the courtroom, especially the Knoxville Family Justice Center. 

County officials said those concerns were baseless as there was plenty of money available in the budget.

County Finance Director Chris Caldwell told commissioners that revenues in December 2020 were up $5.6 million compared to December 2019.

“Nothing will be cut for this capital project?” Commissioner Randy Smith asked.

“Nothing will be cut,” Caldwell replied.

He also pointed out that most judges in Knox County were in favor of the project. A letter was given to the commission signed by eight sitting General Sessions and Criminal court judges.

“The judges wouldn’t sign off on something where they think they are violating someone’s rights,” Spangler said.

Published February 23, 2021