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Tech mostly working, area courts push forward with full docket

News Photo by Julie Riddle Appearing from a prison meeting room via teleconference in Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court on Monday, Eric McMasters is resentenced after appealing his August 2019 sentencing because he was not allowed to appear in court in person.

ALPENA — After an initial slowdown while adjusting to new technologies and a flurry of orders from the Michigan Supreme Court related to the coronavirus, courts are once again moving forward with full dockets and full days.

In Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court on Monday, more than 30 criminal defendants and about 20 civil matters were slated to appear before judges Benjamin Bolser and Ed Black via teleconference.

Unlike a typical in-person court day, in which dozens of cases may be scheduled to appear at the same time, causing defendants and other court parties to sometimes wait for hours for their case to be seen, teleconferenced hearings have been organized around a staggered schedule since courts went digital, allowing parties to be present only for the time during which they are actually needed.

A few hiccups still disrupted Monday’s hearings, including audio malfunctions, parties occasionally flickering in and out of the hearing, and participants occasionally forgetting they were live and making comments not meant for the public.

Offscreen, court staff managed their virtual courtrooms like seasoned professionals, regulating hearings and overseeing teleconference waiting rooms and controlling livestreaming in a whole new and totally unexpected addition to their job descriptions.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Defendant Robert Clark, accused of sexually assaulting a child, appears before Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court Monday.

In court Monday:

∫ Robert Clark, accused of sexually assaulting a small child in his parked truck in September 2019, appeared for a status conference. Clark is being unconstitutionally harassed by police, according to his attorney, Peter Samouris, of Lansing, who complained that his client’s phone was taken and police spend too much time near Clark’s Alpena residence.

The attorney will examine the transcript of Clark’s preliminary exam and contest some statements as inadmissible when the case is presented before a jury. Jury trials will not be allowed to resume until at least June 22, after which courts may face a substantial backlog of trials, which have not been held since March, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed public places to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

∫ Sarah Kalis pleaded guilty to delivery of suboxone, a prescription medication designed to treat people who struggle with opioid addiction, but which can also be abused and cause addiction. Kalis admitted to passing the suboxone to a confidential informant for the Huron Undercover Narcotics Team in September 2019. A search of her vehicle revealed several gabapentin pills, a Schedule V drug with a low level potential for abuse. Kalis will be sentenced June 15.

∫ Eric McMasters appeared in court for a resentencing after his initial sentence was declared invaled because it was held remotely via teleconference. Michigan law says defendants must be allowed to appear in person at their sentencing.

“And now, here we are again, remotely,” said Bolser to the other faces in rectangles on the teleconference call.

This time, McMasters said he would trust the court that a remote sentencing hearing was necessary this time. McMasters participated from inside a state prison.

∫ Jacob McBride, scheduled to be sentenced on Monday over an incident involving the firing of a rifle near an Alpena home, wasn’t able to appear as part of the videoconference call, he told the court.

Present in the hearing by phone, McBride, who is free on bond, was told he could decide if he wanted to be sentenced or to wait. McBride, who is expected to serve jail time as a result of the rifle incident, told the court he would prefer to wait to be sentenced.

As co-defendant in McBride’s case was sentenced to 11 months’ incarceration last month,

Multiple defendants in the last month have OK’d the use of teleconference technology in lieu of physical presence at their sentencings, given the limitations of current coronavirus-strictured circumstances.

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