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Court's closed? No problem, listen by phone

Court's closed? No problem, listen by phone

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The day a Roanoke pharmacist admitted to a federal judge to taking drugs from a patient supply cabinet, the courtroom was empty. But events unfolding in the halls of justice were audible over a public phone line.

The voices of the judge, attorneys and defendant, meeting this week in the case of the U.S. vs. Bryan Wade Lewis, were broadcast by phone.

With most in-person court hearings on hold because of the virus emergency, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia publishes phone numbers and access codes for listening to the video conferences of each of its 10 judges. The system was set up to ensure that the public has access to the courts during the pandemic. Federal courts in other parts of the country, including Virginia’s eastern half, have similar access systems.

During normal times, courtrooms are open to spectators who wish to watch trials, sentencings and pre-trial proceedings live. But these days, court has shifted to largely videoconferencing. Although case participants have an audio-video link, the public gets access only to sound.

There is no charge, nor is registration required. The phone system places callers in a listen-only mode; they can’t be heard by the parties holding court, nor are they required to introduce themselves or say anything. Judges will sometimes remark when they see the public line activated and remind the parties that the public has a right to attend.

Federal law prohibits unauthorized recording of federal court proceedings, and that applies when listening by phone as well as when sitting in court. Despite knowing that the ban would be difficult or impossible to enforce with court audio going out over the telephone, court officials established the phone line out of a desire to maintain the public’s access to proceedings.

“The telephone line was the easiest method to accomplish this responsibility to the public,” said Julie Dudley, court clerk. “The public is advised that recording of the proceedings is not permitted. The only official record of the proceedings is that taken by the court reporter.”

One recent case involved the Roanoke pharmacist, who pleaded guilty to drug tampering.

U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski asked: “Were you in fact tampering with a hydromorphone vial there at the pharmacy and injecting yourself?”

“Yes, your honor,” Lewis replied.

A few minutes later, Lewis was pronounced guilty.

Other recent cases involved a former Blacksburg doctor who was sentenced to prison for health care fraud, drug convictions and other violations, and a Troutville man who pleaded guilty to selling stolen night vision equipment.

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Jeff Sturgeon covers business, banking, transportation and federal court. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: jeff.sturgeon@roanoke.com. Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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