Florida courts use Zoom

Judge Christopher Nash of Florida’s Thirteenth Circuit Court uses Zoom video conferencing software to hear arguments with counsel in a bond reduction hearing in April 2020 at the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse in downtown Tampa. Florida courts, including Sarasota County, also have been using video technology for traffic violation hearings.

I RARELY get a chance to take a two-hour break in the middle of the work day. What better way to spend it than in traffic court, where people try to worm their way out of a speeding ticket, or at least shave a few bucks off the fine.

“Officer, what is the serial number of your radar gun? How do I know that was the same gun you were using that day?

“OK, so why did you stop me when everyone else around me was traveling the same speed?”

The answer to that last question is always the same: Because the trooper was aiming his radar gun at you.

My wife and I were recently involved in a minor traffic accident. Minor in that both of us and our driver, my stepdad, walked away without a scratch after scraping against the side of a semi tractor-trailer. Not so minor for the car, which got pretty banged up.

The trooper at the scene cited the truck driver for running a red light, and the driver’s insurance company took care of the repairs for my stepdad’s car, which had suffered a blown-out tire and some front-end damage.

The third party administrator handling the case also offered a small settlement for our trouble, which for me included getting attacked by fire ants while I was standing by the side of the highway.

We bought a new TV with some of the money. Case closed.

Or so we thought.

Weeks later the subpoena for “Michael J. Coty” and another for my wife arrived stuffed in the same envelope. We were being commanded to testify “in the Circuit Court of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit in and for Sarasota County, Florida.”

Damn you, Zoom. We thought we had left that part of our vacation behind us.

Thanks to the modern miracle of video conferencing, we were being called as witnesses because the driver of the other vehicle — who had been operating an 18-wheeler for a national shipping company — was contesting his traffic citation.

On the day of the hearing, my wife and I took special care to abide by the dress code instructions listed in the subpoena, which we assumed applied to our kitchen table in Manchester the same way they applied to in-person proceedings.

“PROPER ATTIRE MUST BE WORN IN THE COURTOOM. NO SHORTS, NO FLIP FLOPS, TANK TOPS OR BATHING ATTIRE WILL BE ALLOWED.”

We parked ourselves in front of a laptop and watched the dullest episode of “Cops” you could imagine. I wish you could see it for yourself, but we had to promise we would not record the proceedings.

I’m not forbidden to tell you what I saw and heard in open court.

A deputy sitting in his cruiser sipping coffee, waiting for his case to be called.

An ex-con standing on his front porch, explaining why his car was missing a license plate.

Defendants with internet connections so bad, the hearing officer kicked one of them out of the virtual courtroom. There is only so much crackling robot voice a judge can stand.

Our case was low on the docket so we had to sit through most of them. As they dragged on, I switched the Zoom link to an iPad so I could use my laptop to get some work done. For my poor wife, it was purely lost time. She fell asleep in a chair, but that was OK since we kept the camera off until our case was called.

Despite interruptions from barking dogs and long stretches of silence — “You’re still on mute, Mr. Jones” — the judge retained his composure. He waived court costs and dismissed charges for some defendants when he thought it seemed warranted.

But guys asking about serial numbers on radar guns got diddly squat. That $286 fine ain’t going away, buddy. Nice try.

One young man asked for leniency, saying he heard troopers on one of the Zoom connections make fun of the defendants.

The judge acknowledged that he heard it, too, and admonished the deputies, even though he could not tell who among them had been snickering.

That said, it was not germane to the defendant’s case, the judge told him. You’ll have to pay up.

When our case finally came up, an attorney representing the truck driver asked us each a few questions about the accident, being sure to add a couple of “Now, I’m confused” after we answered them. Bingo! The judge ruled there was enough reasonable doubt to dismiss the ticket.

We wish the truck driver safe travels. We’ll be thinking of him when we merge onto busy highways, jump on Zoom calls — and watch TV.

Mike Cote is senior editor for news and business. Contact him at mcote@unionleader.com or (603) 206-7724.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not represent the views and opinions of the sponsor, its members and affiliates.