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Investing in Our Future

Posted on: March 1, 2021

Municipal Court Finds Solution to Hearings During COVID-19 Restrictions

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Irving Municipal Court not only was affected by the governor’s orders and local governments, but also were required to follow additional directives given by the Texas Supreme Court regarding COVID-19.

Beginning in March of 2020, Texas Supreme Court emergency orders greatly limited the ability for all Texas courts to hold in-person hearings. Approximately every 90 days, the Supreme Court issued amended orders extending these limitations and requiring courts to file very specific Operation Plans with the Regional Administrative Judge, under the guidance of the state’s Office of Court Administration (OCA), detailing how the court intended to manage health and safety while balancing constitutional rights.

In response, Irving Municipal Court implemented a variety of creative and innovative case disposition alternatives to ensure the protection of court participants, while still providing expected service levels and access to the court. Virtual hearings were held by videoconferencing and upheld the same constitutional protections to all parties. These included pretrials, property dispute hearings, Teen Court, juvenile hearings and jail magistration/arraignment hearings.

Court clerks made proactive phone calls to individuals with pending cases to provide available disposition options, while prosecutors worked with local attorneys to facilitate case resolution in the absence of in-person appearance.

A live chat online feature was implemented to offer real time responses to questions during normal business hours. This application allows court clerks to interact with multiple users and provide important information efficiently. 

Online disposition options were added, allowing  deferred disposition and driving safety course requests to be processed without in-person contact with the court.

All forms and other applicable documents can be uploaded electronically.  The requestor is notified upon judicial approval or denial of the requested option and instructions are provided.

Each of these options proved very useful and effective, but the court still required a method to allow limited in-person access. A queuing system seemed to be a good fit for this task.

Whyline was offered as a pilot program, using $5,000 of CARES Act Funding, in collaboration with the Innovation and Performance Office and their participation in the Urban Leap cohort.

Whyline made it possible to offer defendants an opportunity to meet in-person to discuss the details of their case during pretrial settings. By agreeing to receive notifications through a smart device or email, their case was added to an electronic queue. Details about the service were emailed and included instructions and options for its use. On the day of a hearing, defendants use a smart device to check-in from their vehicle when they arrive onsite. Inside, court bailiffs see they have checked in, and when the prosecutor is ready to see them, the bailiff notifies them it is safe to report to the court room through the web-based application. This limits the number of people in the building at any given time.

In the future, Irving Municipal Court hopes to expand Whyline use by allowing defendants to schedule their own hearings and appearance times using access to an online preset docket calendar and as a convenient method to submit preliminary paperwork for review ahead of a scheduled hearing.

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