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Plea hearings in felony cases can now be conducted by videoconference in Mississippi.

JACKSON, Miss. (Ben Caxton) — Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Randolph on Friday signed an order giving trial judges the “discretion to use interactive audiovisual equipment to conduct plea hearings.”

The Supreme Court said that video conferencing for a plea hearing can be done only if a defendant agrees to that kind of method, and only if the defense attorney is physically present with the defendant.

The Supreme Court on March 26 declined to allow plea hearings by videoconference but agreed to temporarily suspend a rule that allows sentencing hearings and probation violation hearings to be conducted by videoconference. The next day, President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act that authorized federal courts to use videoconferencing, under certain circumstances, for various criminal proceedings during the COVID-19 emergency, including felony pleas.

Then, in early August, the Supreme Court said it would reconsider using videoconferences to conduct plea hearings.

The Mississippi Attorney General asked the court in a document filed Aug. 20 to protect vulnerable populations of jails by “vesting complete discretion in Mississippi’s trial court judges to decide on a case-by-case bases whether in-person hearings can be conducted safely or should be handled remotely.”

The Attorney General also noted that all U.S. District Courts in Mississippi as well as in neighboring states use videoconferences for accepting felony pleas. Those states also authorized the use of videoconferencing when the “defendant consents and the court specifically finds that the plea cannot be delayed without serious harm to the interests of justice.”

The request was filed by the Mississippi Attorney General and the State Public Defender on March 25. They asked the Supreme Court to adopt a temporary rule suspension to allow felony plea hearings, sentencing hearings, and probation violation hearings to be done by way of interactive audiovisual equipment.

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