3 years after deploying courthouse YouTube streams as an answer to COVID, Cook County is pulling the plug

CHICAGO — The Circuit Court of Cook County will soon pull the plug on its daily streaming of some proceedings, more than three years after the online service began in response to COVID.

The number of courtrooms active on the circuit court’s YouTube channel has gradually declined as pandemic restrictions have loosened. Daily bond hearings for newly-accused defendants are among the few sessions the public can still access online.

That will end on July 17.

The court adopted YouTube feeds “to ensure public access to and confidence in the court system, while ensuring the health and safety of court personnel, litigants, and the public at large” during the pandemic, a spokesperson for Chief Judge Timothy Evans said in a press release Friday.

“Although these goals were achieved during the course of the pandemic, the livestreaming created unintended consequences for the court by enabling rogue actors with malicious intent to disrupt court proceedings and victimize court participants,” the statement continued.

In fact, the rouge actors, including people who posed as attorneys, sheriff’s deputies, and other officials to scam defendants and their supporters out of money, exploited the court’s Zoom hearing system, not YouTube.

Using Zoom chat, scammers sometimes convinced family members to transfer money to secure legal services or to serve as bail for loved ones. But commenting on the court’s YouTube channels was disabled long ago after viewers posted unflattering comments about the participants. No arrests have ever been announced in connection with the scams.

Easy access to bond hearings will end as the Illinois Supreme Court is expected to announce soon its decision regarding the legality of eliminating cash bail in the state.

A bond court hearing room at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago | Cook County Bureau of Asset Management

If the court allows the elimination of cash bail to take effect, it will be much more difficult for the public to see how the new system works or doesn’t work. Interested parties must travel to 26th and California to watch in the courtroom.

Daily hearings on YouTube initially showed video streams of all participants. But the feeds went audio-only just weeks later after a defendant blurted out that he was acting as an informant in a gun investigation.

“Um, excuse me,” the man said as he was seen raising his hand in his Zoom box. “I didn’t get a chance to talk to my [public defender] and tell him I’m a federal informant, and I bought 13 firear…”

“HOLD ON! HOLD ON!” interjected Judge John Lyke. 

“Sir! Sir!” a public defender said.

“Sir,” Lyke continued, “this is being live-streamed on YouTube. Don’t make comments like that.”

Evans’ office provided another reason for nixing daily bond court feeds.

“Livestreaming of criminal court proceedings can create a permanent electronic record in the public domain that negatively impacts the lives of those accused of crimes who were not convicted or whose charges were ultimately expunged from public records,” the court’s statement said.

However, the court’s YouTube feeds are not archived and cannot be accessed after the hearings conclude. The court’s clerk system and court transcripts, both publicly available, already offer electronic records of cases against people who were not convicted of crimes. But they may be expunged or sealed later, making them as inaccessible as the unsaved YouTube hearings.

In a strange episode last year, YouTube shut down dozens of the Cook County courtroom feeds, claiming the content violated the company’s terms of service. Google restored the feeds within days, saying, “Sometimes we make mistakes.”

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