The Coronavirus, COVID-19 has continued to ravage the world as it spreads at prodigious speeds. With some form of civil lockdown or the other happening in countries and states around the world, it has become clear that the world is facing a public health crisis.
The effect of the pandemic is not lost on the justice system as courts have had to modify how they operate or close down entirely. In light of this, persons with pending matters before the courts have legitimate concerns about how their cases will proceed.
Will the coronavirus affect your trial? To what extent can you expect to proceed in light of these events? This article discusses some of these questions and what the implication may mean for you.
What is the risk and impact of COVID-19 on the court system?
With the constant need for administration of justice, the courts are always heavy with traffic. Attorneys, judges, court officials, jurors and defendants always have one business or the other in court. With the current COVID-19 outbreak however, this is a situation that must evolve in line with new public health standards.
The impact of COVID-19 on the court system is a potentially crippling one. As the virus cuts across people in different occupations and from all walks of life, the stewards of justice are not exempted. Law enforcement officials say that people should prepare themselves for two major disruptions: delays in response to 911 calls and an inability to get speedy trials.
As police officers, jurors, attorneys, judges and defendants are equally at risk of the virus, the justice system may not function as well as before.
In some counties, the police department has been forced to convert unused jail cells to stores for respirators, surgical masks and protective suits. The police are also making plans to quarantine their officers if needed and deciding how to retain essential services despite that.
Courts are forced to automatically exempt people over the age of 60, pregnant or with underlying medical conditions from jury duty. There is an increased risk of having a skewed jury or jurors not showing up as a result of infection or self-isolation.
Courts are considering alternative ways to continue with ongoing trials. This includes making use of video calls and teleconferencing. Courts are conducting bail hearings over video links to reduce the rate at which people congregate in court. Criminal and civil trials are being postponed. Plea negotiations are being concluded at record rates. There is an increase in the rate at which plead deals are negotiated.
Some courthouses have entirely adjourned trials for a few weeks. The Supreme Court, in the most dramatic move yet, closed its building to the public.
Instances of adjourned cases and trials
The trial of the Russian company charged with using a social media campaign to interfere with the 2016 presidential elections was scheduled for April 6. However, U.S District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich, in a conference call, told the lawyers for both sides that the trial would be delayed for at least two months. Judge Friedrich said that the reason for this was the growing reluctance amongst potential jurors to serve amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Los Angeles, the trial of Robert Durst has also been delayed until April. Robert Durst, 76 was charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Susan Berman. Susan Berman was found dead in lying face down in her Los Angeles home with a gunshot wound to the back of her head.
The U.S. Supreme Court has adjourned all oral arguments for the next two weeks. This includes its plans to hear President Donald Trump’s case of attempting to block his tax returns.
In Connecticut and Massachusetts, all jury trials were postponed to late April. Michigan state courts recommended halting all trials unless the defendant was already in custody. The courts also recommended halting hearings if the defendants were in the category of vulnerable people, such as those over 60 years old.
In Los Angeles, the County Superior Court announced that new criminal and civil trials would be put off for at least 30 days. Judges were encouraged to make use of teleconferencing. This is to reduce the amount of traffic in the region’s courthouses. For trials already underway, it was left to the discretion of the individual judges on whether to postpone proceedings or declare a mistrial.
The shareholder dispute case against Tesla Inc. in Delaware Chancery Court has also been affected by the ongoing pandemic. It is not clear when the trial will conclude at this rate.
While all this may be troubling, it is an entirely different proposition for inmates in jailhouses awaiting trial. As courthouses are shutting their doors and postponing trials, this group of people is one of the most affected. Apart from the high risk of being infected with the virus in jail, they also have to deal with the fact that one of their basic rights is being denied.
Under the Sixth Amendment of the constitution, every defendant has a right to a speedy and public trial. However, with the great threat to public safety and health, this is not an option for inmates and detainees. They will have no choice but to accept the postponement of their trials.
However, there is a bit of silver lining. According to the Chief Judge of Massachusetts, defendants can appeal to be excluded from the order.
Effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on arrests, prosecution and corrections
As a result of the increasingly serious nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, legitimate concerns have arisen about the safety of prisoners in state and federal corrections facilities. Due to the high risk of transmission, state governments are moving to lower the population of prisons and de-prioritize prosecution for certain offenses.
In Baltimore for instance, the State’s Attorney recently instructed staff to dismiss charges currently pending for selected offenses. These include charges for drug possession, attempted distribution, trespassing, minor traffic offenses and urinating in public. Similarly, in Brooklyn, the District Attorney’s Office will stop prosecuting “low-level offenses” while in Philadelphia, the Police Commissioner has ordered a delay in arrests for less serious offenses such as narcotics activity.
The outlook from all these states is to reduce the number of people already in the system and prevent more than necessary from entering into the system. In San Francisco, the DA instructed prosecutors of his office to leave motions to release pretrial detainees unopposed where the charge concerns misdemeanor offenses or drug-related felonies where the offender does not pose a threat to the public. New York City is also planning to effect the release of “vulnerable inmates” from jails in the city to prevent spread of the pandemic into local facilities.
As a result of these measures, thousands of inmates are being released to house arrest, community treatment centers and time served for non-violent offenses. Even options such as home confinement are available under the First Step Act and current inmates may file a Motion for Compassionate Release on grounds of vulnerability to COVID-19.
Just as these measures are being implemented at the state level, steps are already being taken to encourage similar measures at the Federal level. The Federal Public & Community Defenders and Legislative Community recently wrote to the US Attorney General in this regard.
What does this mean for your trial?
If you were awaiting the commencement of continuing of your criminal or civil trial when the outbreak started, you may be affected. The ongoing measures being implemented will mean that your case may be delayed for a few weeks at the very least, and this may stretch into months. But as a result of current measures to depopulate prisons and detention centers, you may be able to receive an expedited release.
Also, depending on your state of incarceration, if you are currently an inmate, you may have a chance at securing a release. This may be on grounds of compassionate release or due to the low-level nature of the offense.
You should immediately speak with your attorney to get a clearer picture of things and figure out if you can take advantage of the alternatives currently available. If you would like to understand better if you or a loved one can benefit from these alternatives, contact NLPA at 513-247-0082 to speak with a consultant today.