District Court Provides Guidelines for Remote Pleas

On Monday, June 1st, the Criminal Division of the District Court Department published a set of guidelines to accommodate virtual contact and plea hearings with the trial court. Just as the Supreme Judicial Court had hoped in its May letter to all statewide litigants, the court system is working diligently to modernize its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and permit defendants whose lives have been on hold to resolve cases. Click here to read more about the letter published by the Supreme Judicial Court in May.

The revised format allows defendants to advance their cases safely in light of social distancing measures and court closures by allowing the plea to be heard via video conference or telephone conference. The trial court has also simplified the paperwork that a defendant typically completes when tendering a plea by removing the need for their signature on plea forms. Massachusetts has already established that a defendant does not need to sign anything to change his plea and negotiate a sentence, and an oral representation is sufficient.Commonwealth v. Hubbard, 457 Mass. 24, 25-26 (2010). In times where in-person contact is difficult, removing this hurdle creates a much smoother process for the disposition of a case.

In order to tender a plea electronically, all parties must be audible (and visible if utilizing videoconferencing) to one another at the same time. The judge will ensure that the defendant knows of their rights under the law and will consider the recommendations made by the parties before entering a disposition in the case.

How to Prepare for a Remote Plea

Remote pleas are a novel advancement in the technology used within the justice system. The Law Office of Joseph D. Bernard has had the unique experience of presenting a successful case via teleconference, in which our client’s charge of OUI- second offense was dismissed!

The use of this new technology will require a period of time for all to adjust and arrive at a standardized protocol. Judges were delivered a model colloquy (a very formal “conversation”) with questions and advisories in order to fairly accept a tender of plea over video conference or telephone conference. In other words, the judge will ask you questions to make sure that you understand what is happening, that you are choosing to tender a plea voluntarily, that you have had enough time to speak with your attorney about your case, and that you still wish to move forward. Because these hearings will be over video conference or teleconference, the judges are simply expected to be very vocal about who any questions are directed to, that you can properly hear (and see) everyone, and that you agree to tender a plea even though you are not doing so in person.

Once you are sure you have the right technology for a video conference or a telephone conference, you and your attorney will prepare as you would for an in-person plea. You should wear what you would wear to court and prepare by reading the model colloquy and asking your attorney any questions you may have regarding the impact of a plea in your circumstances. Keep in mind that at the time of your plea, you may or may not be in the same room as your attorney, but you will always have an opportunity to speak privately with your attorney in case you have any questions during the plea hearing. It is also important that you are mindful of your surroundings. What is seen may impact you in terms of conditions of a plea, for example, visible weapons or drug paraphernalia where abstinence from either is a requirement of the plea. If access to technology is a barrier to attending such a plea, discuss this with your attorney, who will help to find a solution.

The opportunity to be heard over video and telephone is a progressive approach to open access to the courtroom once again. The decision to negotiate a change of plea is a difficult decision with consequences that impact each defendant differently. For advocacy and guidance you can trust, call the Law Offices of Joseph D. Bernard today.