BENTONVILLE -- A man sitting in a barber chair. A woman shopping in a store. A guy gulping beer.
All are behaviors people have displayed while testifying online in Benton County courts.
Judges across the country are using video conferencing systems to hold court since the covid-19 pandemic started last year. Online proceedings have affected the usual formal court settings.
Benton County Circuit Judge Robin Green said she or her bailiff have had to ask people to put on clothes for hearings. She's asked people to pull their cars over and park instead of participating in hearings while they drive.
"Some defendants will use their phone for their court hearing while clearly shopping in a store," Green said. "There have also been a few defendants caught on a hot microphone saying inappropriate things they did not realize we could hear."
Green recalled one case where a woman could be seen standing in an aisle near the cookies at a Dollar Tree.
"I would have been angry, but she had good reception" on her phone, Green joked after the October hearing.
Green said she hasn't found anyone in contempt of court for their behavior during an online court hearing.
Benton County Circuit Judge Brad Karren has warned some people about wearing hats. He's also told the occasional person to stop driving and park the car. Karren reprimanded a man in October who was sitting in a barber's chair waiting for a haircut when his case was called.
Judges have called out some attorneys for not wearing coats or neckties.
"People using video conferencing still need to conduct themselves in the same fashion as if they are sitting in the courtroom," Benton County Circuit Judge John Scott said. "They are still in a courtroom."
Scott said several of his cases each day now involve using online conferencing. Some of the cases are in person, but witnesses may testify using the video conferencing technology.
He stopped a hearing to tell one of the parties to put her dogs out of the room. He's also told one attorney to pull over his car and stop so they could have the hearing, Scott said.
Scott said circuit judges sent notices to attorneys telling them that the requirements and expectations for video conferencing in court are the same as being in a courtroom. He believes it's important to maintain the traditional courtroom rules.
Benton County Circuit Judge Doug Schrantz agrees.
"It's coat and tie attire," Schrantz said of the dress code for male attorneys. "It's a hearing, and just because attorneys are sitting at their desks, it doesn't mean the same rules do not apply."
Schrantz believes it's important that all parties respect, observe and preserve the dignity of the legal proceedings. He's had his own unusual video conferencing encounter.
He was presiding over a divorce case during an online, morning hearing. Schrantz granted the couple's divorce and then saw the man gulp a beer. He asked one of his staff members if that was actually a beer, she answered yes, that it was the brand of beer she likes also.
Schrantz said he didn't confront the man about tahe incident.
Mike Armstrong, a Rogers attorney, said it's difficult to have some proceedings via video conferencing. He said one hearing had to be stopped because a man involved in the case was outside and there was a train passing by. Armstrong said dogs also were barking in the background.
Armstrong doesn't believe the formal setting of the courtroom should be relaxed for video conferencing. He feels more formality should be inserted in the online proceedings.
"I'm not sure how we do that, but I feel like allowing the other party to appear in a hoodie from his back porch with dogs barking and trains cruising by in the background takes away from the reverence of a court proceeding," he said.
Armstrong reminds his clients to dress appropriately for court.
Rogers attorney Drew Miller said he and other attorneys at his law firm tell clients to behave and wear clothing just as if they were going to a courtroom. Miller said he thinks judges should keep the formal rules.
Jay Saxton, Benton County's chief public defender, said he's seen bare-chested men grab for shirts after the judge comments about their lack of clothing. He said other classic incidents are people shopping or constantly walk during their hearings.
"We tell them to stand still and don't go anywhere, and it doesn't help," Saxton said.
Saxton said maintaining court decorum is important.
"I don't think they need to have hats or sunglasses on in court or on video," he said. "I don't think they need to be disrespectful to the court in any manner."
Armstrong said the difficulties with online conferencing extend beyond court decorum.
He said cross-examination of witnesses testifying remotely is tough. It's impossible, over a computer monitor, to create the interaction that attorneys need with the opposing party or witnesses.
Armstrong said he's found presentation of evidence the toughest part of online hearings.
"Getting exhibits before the judge can be tricky on a normal day," he said. "It's sometimes impossible when you're trying to thread the needle" during online conferencing.
Online Courtroom Etiquette:
Dress appropriately for court
Eliminate any distractions that may interrupt proceedings
Do not speak out of turn or interfere in testimony
Be courteous and respectful to all participants
Do not bring food
Do not use tobacco or vaping products
Show the same courtesy the court is showing
Tracy M. Neal can be reached by email at [email protected] or Twitter @NWATracy.