2020 was strange for all of us, with COVID impacting pretty much every aspect of our lives. The criminal justice system was not spared from this, of course. Minnesota Courts turned to remote technologies, using zoom to handle the thousands of hearings a day that normally would have occurred in person in courtrooms throughout the state. After some initial growing pains, we developed a system that worked well enough for most purposes, but some serious issues remained.
One of these issues was the need to continue holding jury trials. The traditional systems of getting everyone together inside a courtroom was difficult, if not dangerous, during the early stages of the pandemic. However, this clashed with two fundamental rights guaranteed to criminal defendants under the law – the right to speedy trial, and the right to confront one’s accusers.
Speedy trial rights meant that the courts couldn’t just stop having trials. The Constitution requires that trial be held within certain timelines, and even if these rules could be bent a bit for good cause, trials couldn’t be suspended indefinitely.
The right to confront one’s accusers further complicated the situation. Traditionally, this right was interpreted to mean that witnesses against the accused had to testify publicly in open court. Remote attendance was not an option.
In November of 2020, these tensions came to a head. A woman was on trial for serious drug crimes in Beltrami County. Four days before trial, the lead investigator on the case was exposed to COVID and forced to quarantine, rendering the officer unable to attend the trial in person. You may recall that November of 2020 was a particularly bad time during the pandemic, with record case numbers and deaths and no vaccine yet available. Ultimately, the officer was permitted to testify via zoom, and the jury convicted the woman of the drug charges.
Yesterday, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the conviction, reasoning that the woman’s right to confrontation was not violated under the circumstances. The Court reviewed case law from around the country and determined that the pandemic was an extraordinary circumstance that justified permitting the officer to testify remotely to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
The pandemic caused disruption to all of our lives, and Minnesota courts were deeply impacted as well. The actions courts took in response to COVID raised a number of questions, but one of the biggest was whether testimony via remote means was acceptable. Today’s decision tells us that, at least in this case, it was.