Harris County District Clerk Marilyn Burgess has rolled out a pioneering electronic solution to process pleas in non-court settings. By establishing a virtual courtroom the judge, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the defendant are coordinating through electronic means to complete a judicial plea signed by all parties remotely.
Ms. Burgess’ IT team developed the system, called e-Plea, in collaboration with the District Attorney’s Office. E-Plea allows digital case documents to be sent through the District Clerk’s Office (DCO) electronic document management system so that attorneys and others involved in the case can review the documents and add their signatures, all of it while never leaving our website. E-Plea was first utilized on April 1 and was custom built for Harris County as one of the first digital plea processes from end to end in Texas to take place in a completely non-court setting. This tool works in support of the virtual hearing process piloted by the Honorable Judge Ramona Franklin, of the 338th Harris County District Court. One of the main goals of the virtual hearing is to help preserve social distancing during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“My administration is committed to delivering robust digital solutions for those we serve. E-Plea will help keep the wheels of justice moving during this crisis. The virtual hearing allows all parties to work remotely and safely. Together, these tools mean that the legal system can continue even in dire times. Instead of pressing pause on justice, we’re pushing forward and allowing all parties in a case to come together in a way that is safe, socially distant, and efficient,” says Ms. Burgess.
“Virtual remote jail e-pleas play a significant role in preserving the continuity of justice because it provides a safe way for jail pleas to be taken without subjecting defendants, attorneys, court staff and judges to come into contact with one another and possibly spreading COVID-19.
The sequence for a virtual courtroom using the e-Plea process is as follows:
1. Prior to the hearing, the defense attorney can request a remote virtual “Defense Visit” with their client by setting an appointment with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
2. The DA prepares the documents electronically and files them with the District Clerk’s Office (DCO).
3. The DCO places the pleas on the Attorney Kiosk for Defense Attorney review with the defendant.
4. From a designated area in the jail, the defendant will see and read the electronically prepared plea papers and sign with a tablet computer provided by the bailiff.
5. The deputy district clerk will prepare the judgment for signature by the judge.
6. The day of the virtual hearing, the Sheriff will secure the fingerprint for the judgment.
When it is time for the hearing and judgment, the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and court staff meet safely and remotely via video conference. The defendant does not leave the jail.
Hopper notes that, beyond its use during the current crisis, “e-Plea will allow pleas to continue digitally and remotely if needed during future emergencies or under other special circumstances.” She added that the integration of data from e-Plea directly to the judgment will be a future enhancement of the e-Plea process. The integration will minimize data discrepancies and streamline our judgment process.
The DCO has also worked to extend the use of e-Plea to misdemeanor courts
Attorney Sean Y. Palmer has over 19 years of legal experience as a Texas Attorney and over 25 years as a Qualified Mediator in civil, family and CPS cases. Palmer practices exclusively in the area Family Law and handles Divorce, Child Custody, Child Support, Adoptions, and other Family Law Litigation cases. He represents clients throughout the greater Houston Galveston area, including: Clear Lake, NASA, Webster, Friendswood, Seabrook, League City, Galveston, Texas City, Dickinson, La Porte, La Marque, Clear Lake Shores, Bacliff, Kemah, Pasadena, Baytown, Deer Park, Harris County, and Galveston County, Texas.