By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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.”