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Due Process: Specialty courts and COVID-19 (opinion)

By ThisIsReno
Published: Last Updated on

Submitted By Henry Sotelo Esq.

By my rough count, Reno Municipal Court has been closed to in-court sessions since Friday, March 13. That is five weeks on my calendar.

The needs of our Specialty Court clients don’t stop just because the governor orders a quarantine. In fact, their needs may intensify due to the increased stress and isolation.  The first week into this quarantine, most of the Specialty Court Teams that I work on started to figure out ways in which to communicate with each other and most importantly with the clients.

Supervision, treatment and testing, three major cornerstones within the best practice standards of any successful Specialty Court, are challenging to undertake if we are not allowed to meet in groups or face to face. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP), “the premier training, membership and advocacy organization representing the more than 3,000 drug courts and other treatment courts, including DWI courts and Veterans treatment courts across the United States” emphasizes that Specialty Courts must maintain consistent contact and supervision throughout a client’s enrollment.

This was a major concern of mine when we were all advised to stay at home coupled with the Reno Municipal Court’s closure. Drug and alcohol monitoring sites were also forced to close or severely limit their capabilities to service their testing responsibilities of local clients. My concern was that with the increased stressors of life coupled with social isolation, our clients would choose to rely upon substance use to “ride out the storm” we are all experiencing.

Presently, this has not proven to be true in my Specialty Courts. In fact, it appears, to the apparent credit of our court process, the vast majority of clients have taken to heart the therapeutic approach when dealing with this highly stressful time. They are utilizing their tools: attending self-help, seeking therapy, and reaching out to their support systems. 

The Reno Municipal Court has moved quickly to adapt to the new normal. Team staffings in the DUI and Veterans Specialty Courts are utilizing platforms such as Zoom or WebEx to keep in contact with and maintain a sense of continuity and to share information.  Our court therapist uses Vsee, I know health professionals who are using Tele-Health, and AA (and NA) have also moved to similar platforms.

The point is, there are several online meeting platforms out there so that it is possible to closely emulate our very important face-to-face contacts with clients. This consistent contact or monitoring is a key aspect of our Specialty Court effectiveness.

Alcohol and drug monitoring and testing is an  area also being addressed with technology. In the past, RMC Specialty Courts relied heavily on testing facilities. Clients would call in everyday to a recorded message to listen for their “color” to be called. If their color is called, they must submit a urine sample before the close of business that day. This is the best practice standard recommended by the NADCP.

Unfortunately, due to quarantine, the testing facilities operating hours have been severely curtailed to the point where it is extremely difficult for clients to get tested. The RMC Specialty Court teams have responded by increasing the usage of available mobile testing devices. We have used these in the past, and they have proved to be very effective and reliable. Devices such as Outreach Smartphone Monitoring Probation (OSM) usable on smartphones, SCRAM ankle bracelet and handheld mobile testing device carried on or by clients on their person, and the Breath Interlock Device (BID) installed in vehicles, allow remote random testing and monitoring of our clients. The OSM is an especially effective mobile testing method for alcohol use. It attaches to a client’s smartphone and when the client is prompted by the probation officer to test it will video/photograph the person testing with the device. It is relatively inexpensive, easy to use and completely portable.

Court Probation officers can call in random testing on clients and the clients must respond within a certain time or face sanctions by the court. When tested, if the client shows up positive for alcohol use, then the probation officer can order the client to a testing facility for a confirming urine sample. Besides the convenience of utilizing these mobile testing devices, the costs for the client and court are much lower than the per test cost of random UAs.

Testing for drugs is another matter. Presently there is no usable mobile testing device for randomly testing clients prone to use drugs. Our court commonly uses the Drug Patch. The Drug Patch  is a continuous drug monitoring tool that tests for and detects popular drugs such as amphetamines, opiates, cocaine, PCP, and marijuana. The individual is ordered to wear the Drug Patch for 10-12 days at a time. Any attempt to remove or tamper with the patch will be evident upon removal. Upon removal by probation officers, the patch is tested for usage. As with mobile alcohol testing devices, the Drug Patch can be an effective tool to keep clients aware that they are being monitored and will be held accountable for any positive test results.

Ultimately, the main goals of Specialty Courts: facilitating long term therapeutic rehabilitation and ensuring the public safety can be achieved if we continue to creatively utilize technology to continue to effectively supervise, treat and test our clients.

At a time in history when positive news is hard to come by, Reno’s citizens should be proud that our Specialty Court system is not only resilient, it is likely that the sands of time will show that this period has been a time of great growth and improvement for our local criminal justice system and all participants should be lauded for their contributions. Without this universal effort the pandemic could have caused this system to go in a completely different, and less desirable direction.

Henry Sotelo is a practicing attorney in Northern Nevada. He has been a licensed attorney in Nevada since 1987, practicing mostly in the area of Criminal Law. Sotelo has been teaching the law to people in Northern Nevada for 17 years at Truckee Meadows Community College as a full-time College Instructor. Sotelo currently is serving as one of the City of Reno Legal Defenders doing criminal law defense and serving on two of Reno Municipal Court’s Specialty Courts: The DUI Therapeutic Specialty Court and the CAMO-RENO Veterans Court.  Sotelo is currently serving as a City of Reno Administrative Hearing Officer.

Additionally, Sotelo serves on the City of Reno Human Rights Commission and the Washoe County Behavioral Health Board. Sotelo donates legal hours to the Domestic Violence Resource Center on a monthly basis. 

Submitted opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of This Is Reno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article here.

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