Criminal Trials During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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The Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in numerous changes to the day-to-day operations of courtrooms and judicial procedures across the United States. Many courts on the local, state, and federal level have implemented safety measures to proactively stop the spread of COVID-19. Additionally, many states have enforced shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders that may further impact daily operations. As a result, many criminal courts across the country are postponing cases while they attempt to find a way to safely conduct courtroom procedures. Due to this, many defendants are left wondering how COVID-19 may affect their criminal trial.

How COVID-19 May Affect Jury Trials

Many courts have yet to establish a way of conducting jury trials while still following proper social-distancing protocols. This includes areas that have small courtrooms that are unable to maintain Coronavirus safety measures. Even some large courtrooms that can normally hold hundreds of people may not have the space to properly seat 12 jury members, as well as alternative members, under social distancing requirements. As a result, many criminal and civil jury trials across the country have been rescheduled or postponed until further notice.

“While many states are proactively stopping the spread of the Coronavirus by implementing safety procedures, they may interfere with the day-to-day judicial process,” said Attorney Benson Varghese of Varghese Summersett PLLC. “In some cases, courts are running into an issue balancing COVID-19 safety procedures and an individual’s right to a speedy trial, jury, and other rights.”

Additionally, areas with a higher number of COVID-19 cases may be more hesitant to resume in-person court operations. For example, many courts in New York may not conduct jury trials until September 2020.

How are Cases Being Processed?

In response to COVID-19, many state and federal courts have begun conducting some judicial procedures online to help process cases during the Coronavirus pandemic. This includes conducting arraignments and oral arguments online or over-the-phone. Many courts have also implemented electronic filing systems to allow attorneys to submit important documents for a client’s case.

Similarly, as COVID-19 restrictions begin to relax in certain areas across the country, some courts are beginning to resume limited in-person operations. This includes the Alpine County Superior Court in California, which will begin to resume regular sessions for criminal cases in late June. However, individuals entering the court may be required to wear a face mask and follow social distancing protocols prior to entering the courthouse.

Alternative Trial Methods

While some courts across the country are reopening, other areas are testing out alternative ways to conduct courtroom procedures. Broward Chief Circuit Judge Jack Tuter began testing virtual jury trials in mock trials settings with Florida attorneys. Similarly, a Michigan court held a mock jury selection process over Zoom. However, the Michigan court ran into several complications, including technical issues resulting in the dismissal of one juror. Similarly, other courts across the country have used alternative venues to conduct judicial operations, including an area in northwest Montana where courts have adapted a high school gym to allow for jury selection. The same gym may even be used to conduct a trial for a domestic assault case.

If you are facing criminal charges, it is best for you to speak with your local attorneys about your legal options during this pandemic. 

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