A version of this post first appeared on the OpenCourt blog.
A man charged with selling drugs inside the courthouse. A woman said to have shoplifted $5 worth of barbeque chicken wings. A man charged with multiple counts of raping a child with force. A longtime Drug Court participant booted from the program for taking a non-narcotic pill (still against the rules). Everyone brought back to court owing fees or victim restitution in previously dismissed cases. A man on psychotropic medication charged with shoplifting a Stop and Shop cart full of meat and pulling a knife when confronted in the parking lot. A naked hiker in the Blue Hills whose defense to lewd behavior is being raised as a naturist. OUIs. Restraining order hearings. A wife sectioning her husband for alcoholism.
OpenCourt has been streaming public court hearings from the First Session courtroom in the Quincy District Court in Massachusetts since May of 2011. We’ve received feedback about how our viewers use and value the footage, and we realize it would be useful to show more of the court’s daily business — not just the cross-section that comes through the First Session.
While holding to our goal to carve a plausible model for other courthouses, we’ve often asked ourselves how we and other journalists around the country could do a better job shedding light on a bigger portion of the iceberg’s tip, and not necessarily using as much expensive technology.
In other words, just how much business does all of Quincy District Court do in a single day? How can we more fully capture the breadth of cases heard, day in and day out?
To help answer these questions, last month we hosted a cooperative coverage event at the court, an open invitation to citizen and traditional journalists alike to help us gather notes about everything that transpires in the building’s six public courtrooms.
Our combined notes, which you can read here on our blog — gathered between myself, our producer Val Wang, two Patriot Ledger reporters, two Harvard Berkman interns, one State House News reporter, and three citizen journalists — are inevitably incomplete. But we hope this coming together shows more fully the wide array of hearings before the court, the sheer volume of cases, and the fact that this is all happening every day, outside of normal public view.
We realized it’s easier than you might think for loosely affiliated citizens to collaborate on a one-off project (read: Twitter + Google Docs).
There were unsurprisingly a wide variety of cases. Some rough tallies: Assault & Battery (15, of which 3 were labeled as domestic violence), disorderly conduct (4), trespassing (3), resisting arrest (1), uninsured and/or unlicensed motor vehicle operation (5), speeding (3), shoplifting (5), larceny over $250 (1), receiving stolen property (2), distribution of an illegal substance (3), section 35 (1), sealed record request (3), interpreter needed (1).
This day was exceptional not by any standard of caseload or substance, only that more of us were there to see it and relay stories. For me and Val, the longer we’re in court streaming, the clearer it is that we’re sitting on a relatively unchecked sociological goldmine.
Opening Court Data
These notes from last month’s experiment are, at the least, a compelling glance at the river of data flowing through our local courts every single day.
At best they offer a new angle on approaching larger questions: How do we get to a place where public court data is more accessible? Why aren’t the stats being tracked more extensively and automatically in the name of scientifically diagnosing societal ills?
The Boston Globe recently published an extensive three-part series on Massachusetts drunken driving prosecutions, which undoubtedly required massive reporting energy. While that energy will always be required for strong narrative journalism, shouldn’t reporters and the public at large alike have easier access to court proceedings to begin with? Wouldn’t the state be better off if tracking the operation of its courts didn’t require the Herculean effort of a crack, paid investigative team?
Thanks again to everyone who helped make this possible. Our aim at this point, as always, is to provide a window into the everyday landscape of our legal system. Beyond that, we hope efforts like this lead to smarter methods to inform and awaken the public — to be a better radar for a community’s prevalent crimes.
What do you think? What do you see? What should we do differently if we host another event like this?