Douglas County District Judge Robert Fairchild during his 16 years on the bench estimates he’s signed search warrants at nearly every restaurant in town.
Once while serving as duty judge on a weekend, Fairchild drove back from the Kansas City area and pulled over at a Eudora convenience store off of Kansas Highway 10 to sign one for an officer.
But those days are now over for the county’s six judges.
Fairchild sits at his desk holding a white Apple iPad. He touches his finger to the screen and begins moving it to scroll down to the bottom of a PDF version of a probable cause affidavit form.
Fairchild grips a red pen that has a small clear disc at the end and presses it against the iPad’s screen to sign his name. Then he puts an “X” on another line and writes in a dollar amount for a bond. This one is just practice, but if it were real, no matter where he was, he would then be able to email the form from his iPad to the Douglas County Jail and to prosecutors to let them know the suspect’s bond amount.
“All of the judges thought it was cool,” he said. “All of us figured it out easily.”
It’s one more example, he says, of technology affecting the judicial system, an institution typically thought of more for its traditions like robes and gavels instead of iPads and flat-screen TVs.
Fairchild and the county’s other five judges recently practiced with the county’s information technology department after the county purchase the iPads for about $700 apiece, complete with access to the 3G wireless network, like a cellphone. The county also purchased the app Good Reader for $4.95, which allows them to sign and even type on documents.
A main reason judges began using the iPads is because Douglas County prosecutors have cracked down in the past 18 months on suspected drunken drivers who refuse to submit to tests. Prosecutors now have police, sheriff’s deputies and Kansas Highway Patrol troopers automatically seek a judge’s search warrant to draw blood from the suspect within two hours of the traffic stop.
Night and weekend use
The crackdown has also significantly increased the need for judges to sign a warrant, often late at night or on weekend hours, when one judge is typically on call.
In the past, officers brought the paperwork to the judge to sign.
“They arrive at our house between 2 and 4 a.m.,” Fairchild said, “because that’s when most of them occur.”
That created problems because officers would often have to find another officer to leave a suspect with or even bring the person in tow to a judge’s neighborhood.
Now, the judges can take care of the paperwork through their iPads.
“It’s been great, and it worked even better than we thought it would,” Fairchild said.
The iPads are also handy for reading over affidavits from officers on Saturdays when the judge on duty will review recent arrests and set bond amounts.
Technology has been a priority for Douglas County District Court leaders for several years, said Fairchild, who serves as the chief, or administrative, judge. Douglas County commissioners have supported the addition — gradually over the years — of 60-inch flat-screen TVs and cameras in most courtrooms that have jury trials.
Fairchild said that equipment makes a big difference in being able to show exhibits in trials because attorneys can put them on the large screen where everyone can see, as opposed to passing them around the jury box, for example.
It’s common now to see several attorneys in a courtroom at a docket call in the audience checking their smartphones or iPads as they wait for their cases. But Fairchild said some attorneys, especially ones who have practiced for several years, can be skittish about using the new equipment at jury trials.
“I’ve just said you’ve got to use it,” Fairchild says. “We can teach you in 15 minutes what you need to know.”
Rapid expansion of use
Fairchild’s courtroom, for example, has videoconferencing equipment that can allow witnesses to testify from outside the courtroom. A prisoner at Larned State Hospital testified at a hearing last year, eliminating a possible security risk and also monetary costs if he would have been brought to Lawrence for the hearing.
Doctors in civil cases have also testified via video in civil cases. The quality of the picture and audio has made it much more feasible.
“It’s like the witnesses are sitting there talking to you,” Fairchild says.
More extensive use of technology in the courtroom and law enforcement investigations can present some issues with Supreme Court procedures and rules, he said.
Judges also have to consider, for example, whether or not the use of certain electronic methods in the courtroom violates a defendant’s constitutional right to confront his or her accusers in court.
If a witness in another state is testifying via video, they often have a notary public or a court official still swear in the witness in person.
“There’s also a question of is there somebody there coaching them?” Fairchild said. “We have to figure out a way to deal with that.”
The U.S. Supreme Court also recently ruled it was unconstitutional for police to attach a Global Positioning System tracking device to a suspect’s vehicle without a search warrant. Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her concurring opinion wrote that the courts will likely be looking at many investigative techniques in the future because of the advancements in technology and how prevalent it has become in people’s lives.
Fairchild says the Douglas County judges are working to keep up with the technological world that continues to change. As for the judges’ iPads, he doesn’t believe they will be one-dimensional.
“We’re probably going to find new uses for them,” he said.