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Glendale Tests TV Link Between Jail, Courtroom : Accused Star in Video Arraignments

May 15, 1986|ROY H. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

The television camera in the Glendale City Jail was ready at 11:25 a.m. Nikki J. Berinti, 36, of Glendale, pushed back her long red hair, thrust her way past a police officer and took a seat at a table in front of a television screen and the camera.

Public Defender Randall Megee was seated beside her with a stack of legal papers. At 11:30, Municipal Court Commissioner Daniel F. Calabro appeared on the television monitor and asked Megee if he and his client were ready.

"We are, your honor," replied Megee.

Berinti was being arraigned on television Monday, the first defendant to go on camera after an experimental video system was put into use as part of a yearlong test in Glendale Municipal Court. The experiment was organized by the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee.

Links Jail With Courtroom

Camera and television monitors link the jail at the Glendale Police Department with the courthouse one block away. All misdemeanor and felony cases, including murder and other serious crimes, can be handled by video arraignment if the defendant consents.

A prisoner can refuse to be videotaped and instead opt for a face-to-face arraignment. Minor infractions that do not involve an arraignment, such as traffic citations, will not be affected, said Sheila Gonzalez, court administrator.

Prosecutors and court and law-enforcement officials say the program has increased efficiency when tried in courts elsewhere. The Glendale Municipal Court usually handles 15 to 30 arraignments daily. Because court officials now schedule all arraignments in one time block in the morning to make concentrated use of the video system, arraignments that once stretched throughout the day are now completed by 12:30 p.m.

System Speeds Up Arraignment

The $70,700 video program will save the cost of transporting prisoners to and from court and reduce the risk of escapes from courtrooms, officials said. And it holds benefits for prisoners.

"The video arraignment works to the advantage of my clients," Megee said. "Everything happens much quicker, and they don't have to sit around all day."

Berinti was arraigned, pleaded guilty and was sentenced in less than two minutes. She was charged with failure to appear in court on a minor traffic violation and given a $150 fine or 50 days in jail.

Some attorneys objected to the program when it was proposed last year, saying it would deprive prisoners of their constitutional right to be present at their trial.

In response, the county designed a waiver for defendants to sign. The form states that the defendant understands the video arraignment process and voluntarily forfeits the right to appear in person in court.

The Glendale video program was tested last week with about 40 prisoners, and no one refused to go on camera, Gonzalez said.

Video arraignments still are the subject of debate. A 1985 study published in Judicature, a legal journal, of a similar system in Dade County, Fla., said some public defenders felt video arraignments decreased the judge's ability to control the court--by turning a room elsewhere, in effect, into part of the courtroom--and evaluate the defendant's demeanor. Some felt television cameras made the process impersonal.

Megee said he had such fears, but feels the time saved by video arraignments causes clients to spend less time in jail and enables them to learn the disposition of their cases much sooner.

The study quoted judges as saying they favored video arraignments and felt that the system was effective.

Glendale Presiding Judge J. D. Smith concurred. He said video arraignments have led to faster processing of the court's workload.

The video arraignments will involve prisoners transported from Sheriff's Department jails as well those housed in the Glendale jail. The video room, complete with a cage-like detention center, interview booths and two television monitors, was built by the county at a cost of $18,200.

The Glendale program is one of two video projects in the county. The other is at South Bay Municipal Court in Torrance, where closed-circuit television is used for expert witness testimony in drunk driving and drug cases.

If successful, the programs will probably spread through the county court system, court officials said.

The Glendale pilot program took more than a year to set up because of the need to coordinate many agencies. Megee and others who worked on the project said a countywide system might prove difficult because of the number of prisoners and the many agencies that must work together, including the public defender's office, the district attorney's office, private attorneys, the courts and local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies.

Last year about 70,000 defendants were arraigned in Los Angeles County Municipal and Superior courts.

County officials and reporters were shown a humorous demonstration of the video arraignment Friday. Commissioner Calabro arraigned Glendale Police Chief David Thompson on charges of impersonating a police officer.

Thompson looked the part of a prisoner in a striped, black and white jail uniform and complimented Calabro on how well he looked on the screen.

"You're very handsome, very photogenic," Thompson told the judge.

Gonzalez drew laughs when she commented that the major benefit of the program will be that courtroom workers no longer will have to put up with prisoners who smell "just horrible."

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