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February 20, 2013

Alabama Municipal Court Uses Facebook Video Call Feature as Closed Circuit Substitute


By Christopher Mohr
TMCnet Contributing Writer

Closed circuit video systems are nothing new to courthouses. Many inmates do not appear before judges in person, but instead remain in the jail where a camera, microphone and video screen allows them to see and communicate with a judge, who has the same equipment in the courtroom.


An Alabama municipal court has taken a different approach to courtroom videoconferencing. Instead of using the usual courtroom closed circuit feed, they use Facebook (News - Alert).

Clanton, Alabama Municipal Court is using Facebook's video call feature that allows friends who use the social media site to make video calls to one another. The connection is between two accounts used for courtroom business only.

A probation officer from the Chilton Police Department sets up videoconferencing equipment at the Chilton County Jail, where some of the inmates make their court appearance through the video feed instead of in person.

In the courtroom of municipal judge Hollis Jackson, the same equipment is set up behind the bench for communication with inmates.

Two widescreen displays in the courtroom allow the gallery to see and hear the inmate. Inmates cannot see or hear anyone in the gallery; their video and audio feed is configured so they can only see and hear Jackson.

The court started using the video setup on Feb. 12. This is the first time in the court's history that it has used any video conferencing.

In a response to the Clanton Adviser, Clanton police captain Neil Fetner mentioned how the arrangement allowed for better control over inmates:

“We can’t monitor them as well here in our holding facility when we take them out of the jail.”

According to Fetner, the Facebook feed is a temporary measure until a more permanent solution can be implemented.

Inmates would be transported to the court and appear in person in case there are problems with the video feed or if they have hired an attorney moments before their scheduled appearance.

Video conferencing for courtrooms and inmates provides a more secure way to conduct courtroom business. Even transporting low security inmates between a jail and courtroom has its share of risks; more so with maximum security inmates.

One of the biggest concerns with using Facebook as a medium for courtroom video conferencing has to be security. While it's unlikely that anyone would log into either courtroom account and click on a link to a malware hoax promoting free tickets on Southwest, it’s still a possibility. Facebook also gets criticized often for not protecting users' privacy.

The overwhelming question this raises is whether or not inmates are getting fair trials and if using Facebook for some courtroom business could result in a rash of appeals.




Edited by Braden Becker

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