GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Judge Sara Smolenski has plenty of new stories about what has happened in her courtroom, including an anecdote about a man in his early 20s who showed up for his hearing in inappropriate attire.
“I asked him, ‘Sir, do you have a shirt on?’ and he said, ‘No’… so I said, ‘You gotta pretend like you’re in a courtroom right now. I need you to go and get a shirt’,” Smolenski explained of one incident last year.
The man was not in the same room as her. Instead, he appeared while sitting at his kitchen table at home via Zoom.
Like anyone who relied on virtual meeting spaces, Smolenski also encountered technical difficulties like muted audio. Despite that, she sees virtual court hearings as an important option to continue using.
“There are lots of judges that would tell you it’s of the utmost importance to have the personal contact. I think that there is a balance that Zoom hearings can be beneficial, effective, helpful and fair. All the things that are needed if they’re done correctly,” she said.
While the Michigan Supreme Court weighs how to regulate virtual hearings in the future, Smolenski can see the benefits and the drawbacks of both options. For example, she has found it more difficult to sentence people to jail time.
“I can’t say deputy, can you take him into custody? He’s sitting at his kitchen table. Could you please report next week, Tuesday, for 10 days in jail? Well, I mean, I’ve had to do it. You’re actually giving them a penalty of a jail sentence, and they’re sitting in Florida. How do I even know where they are?” said Smolenski.
When asked if, anecdotally, she’s noticed more defendants with arrest warrants who have not shown up for their sentences, she said, “I don’t immediately think that it has increased the number of people who have completely ignored it. The majority of people who will ignore it are the ones who never show up anyway, in person or on video on Zoom.”
On the other hand, Smolenski has noticed more people taking advantage of the virtual option, which may not otherwise have been able to appear in person very easily.
According to Smolenski, the 63rd District Court in Kent County is still backed up by the pandemic shutdown. However, she said they’re developing a plan for how best to deal with that backlog moving forward and that continuing to offer a virtual option could help.
As for her many new stories, another she shared involved a woman who appeared on video with a clearly changing scenery behind her.
“I’m saying, ma’am are you driving? Cause really, I need you to pull over. I need you to stop. I want to talk to you, but I want it to be safe. Oh, by the way, your ticket is driving on a suspended license. You know, you can’t make this up,” Smolenski.