Michigan court: Felony sentencing by video not allowed

Ed White
The Associated Press

Detroit — Sentencing convicted felons by video while they sit in jail “dehumanizes the defendant” and isn’t listed in state court rules, the Michigan appeals court said Friday, criticizing a common practice in Hillsdale County.

But Judge Michael Smith said he’ll continue the custom, as long as defendants waive their right to appear in his courtroom. He acknowledged that he didn’t give that option to Trenity Heller in 2014 when he sentenced him by video in a methamphetamine case, which was the issue in front of the appeals court.

The use of technology has been hailed as a great way to save money in Michigan’s criminal justice system, and state rules allow video from jail for a variety of hearings, including arraignments, guilty pleas and misdemeanor sentences.

“Felony sentencing is not on the list,” the appeals court said in its 3-0 decision that Heller’s rights were violated.

“Sentencing by video dehumanizes the defendant who participates from a jail location, unable to privately communicate with his or her counsel and likely unable to visualize all the participants in the courtroom,” the court said, adding that it “clashes with the judge’s duty to acknowledge the humanity of even a convicted felon.”

But Smith, the only Circuit Court judge in Hillsdale, said he gives everyone a fair shake. He sees other benefits, too.

“The jail is across town so we do save money and security” by using video, Smith told The Associated Press. “If they don’t leave jail, then we don’t have them in the courthouse and have the problems Berrien faced.”

He was referring to the fatal shooting of two bailiffs Monday at the Berrien County courthouse. The sheriff said an inmate somehow got a deputy’s gun while being moved between the court and jail.

Smith also said he doesn’t choose a sentence depending on whether someone is standing in front of him or appearing by video.

“I sentence on facts, not on emotions,” the judge said.

Smith said nearly all felons at the jail have chosen video and waived their right to stand in court since he began offering a choice earlier this year.