Simply put, the most likely effect of COVID-19 on your criminal case will be delay. Whether your case began before or during the pandemic, this blog entry applies to you. If your case was pending, it probably was already delayed.
Generally, the pandemic has slowed the pace of arrests and even the issuance of tickets, but neither activity has stopped.
Law enforcement officers continue to do their jobs, and they are no more immune to the virus than the general public. They are routinely in close contact with a wide variety of people, and arrest means not only physical contact, but sometimes extended contact within closed environments like the squad car and booking areas at jails. They then return to duty to make more close contacts. Corpus Christi has one of the most prolific outbreaks in the nation, including some elected officials. It’s so bad here, it made national news. At least two local police officers and victim’s advocate have died of COVID-19.
The Participants In The Court Process
Many factors combine to potentially disrupt all normal functioning of the so-called “criminal justice system”.
Beyond the considerations about massive problems with COVID-19 at the jails, normal court functioning in criminal cases is a logistical challenge which can go sideways in the blink of an eye with no warning and possibly no end in sight.
A typical criminal non-trial court day involves many people. This includes the judge, prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants who were released on bond, jail inmates accompanied by jailers, court security in the form of bailiffs, clerks of the court for the official records, court reporters who record everything said, probation officers, and other various court personnel. There may be 10 people or 100+, depending upon the court’s scheduled business for the day.
If any one of these groups of people is not present, court business could stall out and be completely unproductive. All the efforts by every other participant could be wasted.
Even when no family members, reporters, witnesses, or juries are involved, the number of necessary participants make for a potent opportunity to spread a particularly contagious virus.
Each and every one of the people mentioned could unknowingly be infected and infectious before entering the courtroom. Each interpersonal interaction has the potential to spread the virus, which can then be spread to anyone else the carrier encounters.
Tentative plans and express, written protocols to minimize the possibility of the spread of the virus are in place. You may find them here. They vary from court to court, rather than a uniform procedure being instituted, so you may need to become familiar with the entire list of protocols for your court. Your lawyer certainly must do so.
Going To Court In Person Puts You At Risk
Even with every precaution being taken within the controlled environment of the court, any one of the participating roles may be shut down with an outbreak. For example, if the clerk’s office becomes a source of outbreak, every single person in that department may be prohibited from coming to work. When the clerk’s office becomes a safe place again, another participating agency may face the same dilemma. This, along with the other departments participating, may mean all the best laid plans could be frustrated. We can’t know for certain where it will strike or how long it will set back court.
Jury trials present even more extreme issues. In my opinion, they seem to be a thoroughly distant proposition. The issues with bringing in dozens or hundreds of people from their homes to the courthouse or an alternate location are numerous and prohibitive, in my opinion. Until significant inroads have been made against the spread of COVID-19, I believe it would be thoroughly irresponsible to go forward with jury trials.