The City of Victoria Municipal Court’s longstanding goal of increasing accessibility has taken on an increased urgency as court officials work to balance the efficiency and availability of the justice system with public health concerns, but the court has risen to the occasion.
“A lot of the changes we’ve made were already on the agenda, but we’ve had to adjust our timeline because of COVID-19,” said Municipal Court Judge Vanessa Heinold. “We’re implementing policies now that we hope to continue in the future because of the positive response we’ve gotten.”
During the pandemic, Heinold and her staff have tried to provide additional resources and to be flexible if a person needs a deadline extension or accommodation.
“During this situation, people have lists of worries that they need to prioritize, like shelter, security, food and medicine,” Heinold said. “I don’t want Municipal Court fines to be another item on that list along with life-and-death issues.”
Since concerns about COVID-19 began, the court has implemented E-Court Appearances on Mondays and Thursdays at 1 p.m. through Zoom. Defendants can use the videoconferencing platform to enter a plea, request a deadline extension or resolve outstanding warrants. Defendants who plead not guilty will be notified later of their scheduled trial dates.
In addition to allowing participants to practice social distancing, the system is especially convenient for defendants who live outside of Victoria County or who otherwise would have difficulty appearing in person.
Victoria’s virtual court system has attracted the interest of larger cities such as Fort Worth and Sugar Land, with representatives reaching out to observe Victoria’s virtual hearings and seek advice on how to implement such a system.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on being ahead of the curve with these types of new initiatives, but it’s still exciting to see these larger cities taking an interest in our virtual court,” Heinold said. “That shows us that we’re doing something right.”
The court is able to process payments of fines and fees by mail or online, or over the phone on a case-by-case basis and only if the person already is setup on an existing payment arrangement. Also, officials recently added an on-site drop box for payments and documentation, similar to the boxes already in use at 700 Main Center for utility bill payments. Residents are able to submit documentation and correspond with court staff through email at email@example.com. The court has also moved its defensive driving signup online and is looking into adding online options for other services.
PHOTO: The City of Victoria Municipal Court recently installed an on-site drop box to accept payments and documentation.