When Charles Roach of Flanders was arraigned Sunday afternoon on charges of criminal contempt of court and harassment, it was a historic event in Riverhead Town Justice Court.
Mr. Roach was the first person in the town to be arraigned digitally via Skype.
Town Justice Lori Hulse presided over the arraignment from her home, using a laptop computer.
And yes, she wore the judge’s robe.
“It was different,” Judge Hulse said. “I felt the need to make sure everyone was hearing what we were saying. Usually, the defendant is silent because the attorney does all the talking, so every once in a while I would ask him if he understood what was happening and he would say yes. But I think once you get used to it, it’s going to be much simpler going forward.”
The defense attorney also is connected by Skype, from home, as is the prosecutor. The defendant, Mr. Roach, was provided with a laptop so he could see the proceedings from the holding area he was in at the town police department.
“Everybody is home except for the defendant and the police department,” Judge Hulse said.
The shift was necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused most courts in New York State to be shut down.
But Judge Hulse said that using Skype for arraignments is likely to become the new normal even after the pandemic subsides.
“Going forward, even after the pandemic is over, the idea is that this might continue so that the prisoner is not moved around more than necessary and the arrangements can be done as efficiently as possible,” Judge Hulse said.
Riverhead’s justice court was shut down in mid-March, and all town criminal cases have since been arraigned in Central Islip. All non-criminal cases have been adjourned until May 4.
The Skype arraignments are made possible by the state’s Unified Court System, which has a license with Skype Business that can be used by the town and other agencies and attorneys affiliated with the court.
The town’s other judge, Allen Smith, has yet to preside over a Skype arraignment, Judge Hulse said.
But the goal is to get a laptop and scanner for each judge, so that court documents can be scanned and sent immediately to other parties.
The judge is permitted to record the arraignment, and that recording is then sent to a court reporter, who transcribes it and makes the official record of the proceedings, Judge Hulse said.
The town justice court is closed to the public and all employees but one are working for home, she said.
“This is all sort of a work in progress,” the judge said. “We’re seeing new things crop up every day.”