8 Digital Courtroom Recording System Best Practices

Courthouse buildings are becoming increasingly complex in their application of technology. There are a myriad of laws that must be considered in the application of courtroom technology. This just adds one more layer to an already dense mixture of technical requirements.

While many of the technology systems in a courthouse are no different than those that we would find in any presentation system, there is one that is much different. The recording system. The reason is because the audio recording or “record” of the proceeding is literally the legal transcript of the proceeding. Courts have been quickly adopting digital recording systems ever since the 2009 COSCA (Conference of State Court Administrators) Policy Paper: “Digital Recording: Changing Times for Making the Record.”

Because of its importance in the overall workflow, it should be considered early in the design process. Here are a few Digital Courtroom Recording System Best Practices:

Use a System with a Minimum of Four Audio Record Channels

This comes back to the fact that the audio record is the official transcript of courtroom proceedings. If someone is shuffling papers and you can’t hear a defendant’s response, that’s a serious problem. The solution is to record at minimum of four individual “tracks” of audio. For instance, this could be judge, prosecution, defense, and a mix of all remaining sources. Separating these into four separate recordings means that noise on one of these tracks will not conceal the audio on another track.

Use High Quality Microphones

Electronics have become increasingly sophisticated, and we can do some pretty impressive things to audio in the form of reducing unwanted noise and improving sound quality. Regardless, it’s much easier to get things right from the start. Selection and placement of microphones may be one of the most critical elements to the creation of high quality audio in the courtroom. These microphones should all be equipped with momentary mute switches. Toggle switches should never be used, as they will be forgotten, resulting in a gap in the record.

Use a System that Allows Simultaneous Playback / Recording

At some points during a proceeding, it is possible that the record will need to be confirmed. For instance, to go back and confirm what was said earlier. The system should allow you to go back and search / play back a particular track, while continuing to record.

Use Visual Confirmation

There should be a constant visual indicator, visible in the courtroom that allows confirmation that the system is actively recording.

Support Bench Conferences

Common practice is to include a function in the court audio system to emit white noise through the audio system speakers to prevent jurors from overhearing what is spoken during a bench conference. This is similar to noise masking in an office environment. We are just raising the noise floor, to decrease intelligibility.

Automatically and securely back-up

The recording system should support both local and network shared server backup. At this point, IT best practices for data security and redundancy should be followed. Security and privacy are of particular concern and typically require additional coordination. One major court system that I worked with backed up all their proceedings on optical media (against my strong recommendations). I’m still waiting for a hurricane to take out a window of that first story building and a decade of court records with it.

Enable Court Specific Read/Write Settings

Obviously, you need to have settings that will prevent someone from accidentally deleting records. Similarly, there should be a way to seal records both during and after court proceedings.

Allow for Easy Interface with other Audio Systems

While Digital Recording is an effective tool, the shift towards this technology was cost driven. Stenographers are expensive, by contrast. We are reaching a tipping point, where technology is enabling other cost cutting measures. These include remote translation (so that a “pool” of translators can be shared between multiple courts), and remote presence systems. An example of one such system would be a first appearance system that saves the (dramatic) costs of transport for arraignment.

I designed a system of this nature that also implemented remote translation. This became extremely complex quickly, because you are dealing with audio from three different locations. In addition to requiring some fancy electronic tricks for echo cancellation, this also requires a significant amount of coordination of courtroom workflow. Plan for plenty of this time when implementing any system of this sort.

Many of the functions described above are handled by a separate DSP (digital signal processor). Ideally, the court recording system should be able to transport audio over one of several Ethernet transport mechanisms. This makes for a much cleaner and more future-proof design.

For more information, refer to the NCSC (National Center for State Courts) document “Making the Record Utilizing Digital Electronic Recording”, published September, 2013. This is an excellent reference, particularly with regard to establishing workflows within the courtroom. The devil is in the details and there are several nuances that the guide does a great job of capturing.

There are several Digital Courtroom Recording Systems on the market. We have extensive experience in the design of both audio and video systems for the courtroom and can assist you with selection, design, and implementation of a Digital Courtroom Recording Package.

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