WatchSonoma Watch

Going to court? Smile for the camera


Sonoma County deputies were on high-alert at the arraignment of two murder suspects when dozens of friends of both the victim and defendants showed up and took seats beside each other.

It was more than just an awkward social situation. Bad blood between the two groups was blamed in the death and there was reason to fear the hearing could erupt in a brawl.

So extra security was called. And court officials did something that is becoming more common in these days of high-tech gadgetry — they set up a surveillance camera.

From a perch on a shelf lined with leather-bound law books, a white, fish-eye lens peered out at the crowd, recording faces and transmitting images to a remote monitor.

For those who noticed it, the camera may have served as a deterrent to bad behavior. For those who didn’t, it could have provided crucial evidence if any crimes were committed.

“We’re always aware of the severity of criminal cases and the potential for unhappy people to show up on both sides,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Eric Thomson, head of court security. “And we have a number of resources to mitigate risks, including cameras.”

Cameras at the courthouse are not new. Mobile units have been used in the older courtrooms since the 1980s. Fixed monitoring systems are installed in newer facilities, most hallways and stairwells.

But with the rise of multi-defendant gang cases drawing dozens of onlookers — and with the strain of staff reductions — cameras are seeing more action. Technological improvements make them even more attractive.

Most agree it’s a good way of monitoring the half-million people who visit Santa Rosa’s 25 courtrooms each year. Thomson said an average of 40 deputies supervise about 100 in-custody defendants attending hearings daily.

“We want to keep everyone safe,” Thomson said.

But some see the devices as an invasion of privacy rights and an incursion on civil liberties.

Linda Lye, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said the organization is concerned about the potential stockpiling of images and whether they would be added to facial recognition software used by the government.

Also, Lye said cameras pointed at the gallery could prevent people from exercising their right to attend open court hearings.

“To the extent that it is being used to chill or deter people from attending court proceedings, that would be a concern,” Lye said.

Santa Rosa criminal attorney Steve Turer agreed there was the potential for overuse. He said each case should be considered before cameras are allowed in, he said.

“They need to argue the case is a problem,” Turer said. “They would have to justify it.”

But court officials maintain they’re not using surveillance cameras to scare off the public and they don’t constitute an invasion. Thomson said the Sheriff’s Office does not collect any data or recordings.

Besides, there is no legal expectation of privacy in a public courtroom, said Judge Rene Chouteau, who presides over Sonoma County Superior Court.

“People who appear publicly at a trial don’t have a right not to be filmed,” Chouteau said.

He said cameras are used in court facilities statewide. When Sonoma County opens its new $180 million courthouse in 2015, it will have cameras throughout, he said.

“In the last few years we’ve been more concerned about the level of violence in some communities,” Chouteau said. “When we have gang crimes between two rivals and gang members are there, it’s readymade for a confrontation. If something starts to develop … we need to deal with it and not let it get out of control.”

Thomson said there have been minor incidents involving one-on-one fights and shouting matches, but violence among large groups has been avoided.

In addition to cameras, the Sheriff’s Office deploys undercover detectives to sit in audiences and trains court deputies to anticipate trouble.

Upcoming cases, including the trial of two men accused of killing another at Santa Rosa’s El Puente cantina on Dec. 3, will continue to get close attention. Spectators at next month’s trial of four Asian gang members accused of killing a rival near Jenner also might be watched by cameras.

Cameras are part of an overall trend that has more officers armed with digital voice recorders and other devices to get the job done.

“Obviously, law enforcement in general is becoming more high-tech,” Thomson said. “We’re working smarter with fewer resources.”

17 Responses to “Going to court? Smile for the camera”

  1. brian fuesz says:

    Hey what about cameras in the judges chambers?? Than everyone can know what really goes on…..that would be of interest to most everyone.

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  2. Money Grubber says:

    Reality fails to even understand that his reference to Judge Lance Ito was way off course and way out of date.

    Get into the here and now, sir.

    SteveGuy is absolutely correct in all that he just posted.

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  3. Steveguy says:

    As a co-equal branch of our Government, they are as good at stealing and wasting the public’s money as the other two.

    They cry over budget cuts, have the best pensions, and they build new $180 million courthouses.

    There really is a Judicial Industrial Complex. They mostly all make VERY good money that we pay. Court ordered, in many instances.

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  4. Reality Check says:


    You have veered far off course. Whether attorneys might perform for the camera isn’t relevant to why cameras are in Sonoma County courts. But it is the reason why judges say they don’t want televised trials. You know better, of course.

    I have many problems with our current system of justice. But that too isn’t a reason to deny the public or court employees protection from a public often unruly and violent. If cameras deter crime, and absent objections that don’t go beyond speculation, that works for me.

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  5. Money Grubber says:


    You are way, way, way out of date, sir.

    Lance Ito was in the news 20 years ago and at a time when cameras in court rooms were newish.

    This is the here and now.

    Anyone who produces documentary films will tell you that the subject(s) get used to the camera in a short amount of time and completely ignore them while engaging in their every day work or life duties.

    Put cameras in each court room so the public can witness exactly what goes on. The judges, lawyers and all involved will not be “playing to the cameras” as you suggest. Those days are long past history.

    Judges fear the cameras today only because the public would see how actually unreliable the American Justice System really is.


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  6. Reality Check says:

    Judge Lance Ito is an example of a judge who played to the camera and audience, and undermined justice in the process.

    But these cameras serve a different purpose, to deter criminal acts in court and enable police to identify those responsible if they occur.

    I doubt the system has audio capabilities, but that would open up the potential for abuse. The complexities and expenses to wire a large courthouse are significant. In any case, we’ve slipped into rank speculation.

    Money: During war do you think an army general is obliged to tell the truth when a reporter asks which area he intends to next attack? At times do police have good reason to deceive criminal suspects? Yes.

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  7. Money Grubber says:

    Its only a matter of time before a deputy or court employee is caught electronically eavesdropping, ILLEGALLY, upon a defendant / attorney conversation.

    Last time I was a juror, there were dozens of attorney’s huddling with thier clients in the open hallways.

    The Press Democrat would actually be performing a valuable service to the public and to its readers by ascertaining just exactly what audio is planned for the surveillance.

    As for those of you who actually believe that law enforcement won’t be listening to you, consider this:
    In California, it is illegal for you to lie to the police. BUT it is NOT illegal for the police to lie to you. So when they say they are not listening in on private conversations, don’t believe a word they say. They’re covered. They can LIE.

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  8. Canthisbe says:

    Many modern courts use video recordings in the place of stenographic court reporters. Saves money and allows the court or the appellate courts to review the proceedings on video. Some judges don’t like cameras in their courts because they don’t want a video of what they do or in some cases don’t do – like come back from lunch on Fridays.inda Lye, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union If you’re concerned about about the potential stockpiling of images and whether they would be added to facial recognition software used by the government, stay out of court. And if you’ve seen TV trials, the judges play to the TV as well.

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  9. Reality Check says:

    The reason many judges don’t allow cameras in court has nothing to do with privacy concerns. It’s because judges didn’t want attorneys performing for the TV audience. It distracts from the trial.

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  10. Fair is Fair says:

    “People who appear publicly at a trial don’t have a right not to be filmed,” Chateau said.

    It always start off with good intentions then morphs into a tracking system for their convenience.

    There is a reason why cameras have been not allowed in the court rooms for years.

    If chateau is right then put cameras in her office where she meets for her safety also.

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  11. Juvenal says:

    A courtroom is by definition a public place. There is no right to privacy in a public place.

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  12. Commonsense says:

    First, as the Judge aptly pointed out, you have no expectation of privacy in a public court house.
    Second, stockpiling of images in this day and age can be done any number of ways. People send out images of themselves on an almost daily basis in just about every way imagined, and what about all of those traffic cameras and toll cameras and pictures taken for ID or CDL’s. Please, if the government wanted to stockpile images it wouldn’t have to rely on those taken in a court room.
    Lets not create an issue where there isn’t one when we have so many other real issues to address. The cameras are a security and safety tool period, although I’m sure if the camera captured an image that would clarify who did what, those innocent of any criminal conduct are quite happy to have the proof to back it up.

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  13. Brian Brown says:

    I fear it’s the only way. There was a time when even the hardest criminal respected the court. Since the new era of toxic society the cameras are the order of the day. Here’s the deal. Google yourself or go to Spokeo and look yourself up. Privacy is gone. We must mourn privacy’s demise and find a way to adapt our lives as “The Truman Show” ~Keep yourself covered.

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  14. akr says:

    and one thing I suppose I would want to watch for is witness intimidation.

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  15. akr says:

    Trials are public. There are witnesses aplenty to attest to someone’s presence anyway. I don’t see much of a problem. Overuse of facial recognition technology could conceivably be an issue, and that can be negotiated, but I rather doubt it’s really a realistic concern. Far too much data to really sort through to be of any major concern (the bigger concern is getting lost in the data), and probably not very reliable anyway. I would prefer that it only be consulted if something happens in the courtroom, however, unless there is something on the order of a warrant justifying reviewing footage.

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  16. Reality Check says:

    Let me see, how much privacy do you expect when you walk into a public courtroom? The idea of expecting privacy while in a public place is counterintuitive. And if people wanted by police hesitate before going in, so much the better.

    It’s difficult to see just how using cameras to protect the public undermines the privacy of any person . . . . unless that person is doing something illegal.

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  17. Money Grubber says:

    Two issues:

    One, its illegal for law enforcement to listen in on conversations of the public and especially between attorney’s and their clients. Do the cameras listen via mic?

    Two, judges across California have refused to allow cameras into the court rooms. Interesting, isn’t it, that the judges are afraid of cameras in the court rooms yet have no issue with police eavesdropping upon the general public in the court building.

    Betcha that new, UN-necessary, court building in Santa Rosa will have the latest high tech spy gear in the walls that our tax money can buy. If for no other reason than for the police to have fun listening to us.

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