Pandemic justice: Zoom, cue cards and charades

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GRAND RAPIDS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Pandemic justice is a new frontier.

It requires a strong internet connection, at least a little knowledge of technology and, in the case of at least one Kent County judge, cue cards and charades.

Take Wednesday’s hearing for Mr. Foote before 63rd District Judge Sara Smolenski for example.

The suspect in question, an out-of-state man charged with drunken driving, stood in what appeared to be his dining room some 800 miles away, staring at a computer screen or maybe at his cell phone.

Through her Zoom connection, the judge stared back.

“It is Mr. Foote?” she asked. “Can you hear me sir?”

There was more staring.

“I don’t know if you can hear us, but you have to unmute yourself,” the judge explained. “There’s a microphone-like button with a red line through it; you have to click on it.”

No. That was not working. The man was not saying a word; not moving.

“We cannot hear you,” the judge repeated.

Clearly, the judge had done this before. She held up a handwritten, pre-produced cue card.

“Unmute yourself,” it read.

That didn’t work.

Then she used another hand-written cue card. She held it just high enough for the camera in the courtroom.

“Give us your phone number,” it read.

Then, for the sake of all, the judge used charades.

Kent County Judge Sara Smolenski and a defendant during a court hearing complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Aug. 5, 2020)

But before we get back to Mr. Foote’s story, News 8 spoke to Judge Smolenski through Zoom after the hearing to discuss her take on justice during a global pandemic.

“It is little bit like charades,” she said. “And, I’m not bad at that game to be honest with you. I’m not bad at that game.”

In a pandemic, almost everything in court is done through Zoom.

“We’ve had guys sitting in their chairs smoking a cigarette, pleading guilty,” she said.

The other day, the judge asked a guy to stop driving during a court hearing. He pulled over at a store.

“Now, he’s getting out going in and buying Diet Coke,” Smolenski said.

Now, back to Mr. Foote.

All the judge wanted was his phone number to at least open a line of communication since Zoom audio wasn’t working.

Doing more charades, she motioned toward the phone and swung her desk phone back and forth by its cord.

“Phone number,” she muttered. “Give us your phone number.”

He stood up.

“He’s trying to do something,” she said, hopeful.

“Nice dog,” she said, noticing the man’s pet in the room behind him, perhaps a chocolate lab.

Finally, she held up a new sign: “R U Mr. Foote?”

Then, a breakthrough: He nodded. He finally wrote down his phone number.

But the judge couldn’t read it. He held it too low, cutting off the number.

“Put it up a little bit,” the judge implored, motioning upward with her hands. “Put it up a little bit.”

Six minutes after this all started, they were connected by Zoom for video and phone for sound.

“OK, Mr. Foote. Finally, we can talk,” the judge said.

All the way from his dining room, Mr. Foote pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

“Justice is being done,” the judge said. “This is a unique time we’re in and everybody is trying to do the best they can.”

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