The Verdict Is In: Courtroom AV is Now Connected

Published: September 19, 2023
Image courtesy of Netgear / seng kui Lim / 500px via Getty Images.

If you’re a fan of the enduring TV procedural “Law & Order” — and who isn’t? — you know that the back half of each episode provided a dramatic, albeit simplified, tutorial on the workings of the American judicial system. But, as with a lot of things in life, those legal processes have undergone some radical shifts amid the rise of social media and the onset of the pandemic. This is especially evident in how audio and video are deployed in courtroom environments — everything from remote arraignments, first appearances before a judge, straight through to evidence presentations, actual trials, and other legal proceedings. The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated the changes, requiring most aspects of proceedings that usually took place in person to be done remotely.

Few industry members are better positioned to opine on these trends than Robert Godinez (CTS), CEO and system design engineer at Court Video Conferencing Services, LLC (CVCS), based in Oxnard, Calif. He has been tracking these kinds of adaptations for three decades, designing AV systems for courtrooms and courthouse complexes from the western U.S. to Hawai’i. (In one case, he actually commissioned a fiber cable from Maui to the big island as part of a courtroom project.) Most recently, CVCS completed the 12 courtrooms comprising the Santa Cruz County California Courts, including the Santa Cruz and Watsonville locations. Leaning on key technology partners like NETGEAR and Visionary, CVCS provides a prime example of the enduring shift in courtroom technology, which must suit both in-person and remote sessions.

The Hybrid Courtroom

“It’s a hybrid courtroom,” Godinez says. “The judge and the prosecutors are there in person, but the defendant and defense attorneys may be coming in over Zoom or Teams. Since COVID-19 has pulled back, they started bringing people — litigants, attorneys — back into the courtroom, but they still didn’t want everyone in the courtroom to be exposed. So, the courtroom remains hybrid.”

That amalgamated courtroom brings with it some audio and video challenges. When it comes to sound, although the trope of the hand muffling a judge’s desk microphone, producing feedback, is both a trusty effect on television and a real potential problem, contemporary issues also include echo cancellation. Both of those issues are addressed before they can happen via application of DSP in the audio systems, usually integrated into the systems’ digital mixers.

On the video side, things can become more complicated. “On the video side, the challenge is evidence presentation,” Godinez explains. “Let’s say, in a criminal case, you have to present [a knife] as evidence. How do you show that evidence besides just having a single TV in the courtroom? We install multiple displays.” He continues, “One [is] at the judge’s bench, where he could see it personally, instead of looking up to a [projected image on] a screen. [There’s] another where a witness could see it locally, so they don’t have to look up and see a big screen. Then, other screens could be for the attorneys or the jury to look at, as well. So, they could see all the evidence at the same time.”

Godinez continues, “We put displays all around the courtrooms, including for the witness and jury and the audience, as well. Because, in many cases, the proceedings are open to the public. Then, we add a document camera and ports for a laptop that an attorney brings in, and we’re able to send that audio and video through a Visionary encoder and send a signal into the videoconferencing unit that hosts the Zoom or the Teams [platform].” He adds, “The combination of infrastructure and endpoints we bring in allow a hybrid courtroom to function seamlessly.”

IP is a Game Changer

Courtrooms have always had to manage AV — even if it was just a basic PA system and an LCD display on a cart. What has changed the game here are infrastructure updates like the shift to IP-based signal distribution and management. That is where close technology partnerships with vendors like NETGEAR and Visionary really pay off. Indeed, Godinez remarks that, with COVID-19 having driven advancements in courtrooms’ AV systems, top-tier providers like CVCS put a premium on using Visionary codecs and NETGEAR network switches.

“NETGEAR has been one of the main multicast AV-over-IP switches that we use,” Godinez remarks, noting that his team and he have integrated NETGEAR switches into Santa Cruz County Courts and other courtroom projects because of their ability to carry multicast AV signals in addition to data. Godinez counterposes NETGEAR’s capabilities with those of standard network switches, which, he says, couldn’t transfer audio and video data. “NETGEAR made it an AV line that has multicasting [so you can] transfer audio and video on a network,” he explains. “And that’s why they’re ahead.”

Godinez readily acknowledges the challenge posed by transferring audio and video over standard network switches, but he says these capabilities are necessary in an AVoIP environment. He continues, “Other brands are now bringing AVoIP switches to market, but NETGEAR was a pioneer in that capability. It has been around for a while, and [it’s] what we need.”

Answering the Doubts

If you have any doubt about the criticality of the move to IP-based infrastructure, Godinez has a ready answer. He underscores that the scale that AV has reached in courtrooms, combined with the stresses of hybrid operations, has been determinative. “With the scale of what we have to do now, we could not use old, traditional analog,” Godinez declares. “So, it has to be an all-digital network infrastructure now. We need far more bandwidth than a traditional analog infrastructure could provide.”

Recognizing this fact, Godinez also praises Visionary technology for being able to capture that AV — whether it be analog or from a laptop — and convert it onto the network. “[NETGEAR and Visionary are] both well suited for the courtroom application,” he explains. “In fact, courtrooms are going to continue to move into the networked AV world, so choosing components that work well in that environment is critical.”

The move to IP-based infrastructure has its costs, but it brings the benefit of being able to monitor, maintain and service those systems remotely. That ability was included in the eight updated courtrooms in Santa Cruz and four in Watsonville. “We have access to their devices — like the Visionary encoders and decoders — through a network that we’ve never had before,” Godinez says. “That’s a game changer because it takes the responsibility of servicing the systems off the courts themselves.” As he explains, “In case of a problem, we can go in, check it, ping it, see the status of it — even control it [and] reboot it, if necessary — all remotely. Whereas, before, in many cases, you would have to send a technician to go into the courtroom [to] see what the problem is and then handle it.”

The Need for Advanced AV

As with any institutional or governmental project, budgets can be an issue. According to Godinez, projects sometimes, as a result, have to be done in stages as funds become available. “Some courts will do just audio first, and then they’ll do the video as a secondary purchase,” he says. But, he reiterates, the COVID-19 experience continues to loom large. It has underscored the need for advanced AV that can keep court systems functioning in the event of future lockdowns.

Robert Godinez and Court Video Conferencing Services offer a window into the future of courtroom AV, which will continue to rapidly migrate onto IP backbones and be optimized for both in-person and remote participants. As always in our industry, finding the right vendor partners is a major piece of the puzzle, ensuring that integrators can deliver next-level value and outstanding outcomes to their clients.

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