Courts across the country have abruptly closed for all non-essential business due to the Covid pandemic. This has meant a halt to jury trials, adjourning most court appearances, extending deadlines, suspending speedy trial and limiting most access to courthouses. Many types of legal matters can be put off without undue harm. Criminal cases cannot be put off as easily, so the Florida court system is developing creative ways to cope with these cases. Policies are quickly being implemented that attempt to protect the rights of the accused, keep the streets safe and safeguard everybody's health.
Are remote hearings fair to criminal defendants?
The Florida criminal defense bar is doing their best to protect the rights of criminal defendants during Covid. Everyone charged with a crime has a right to a fair and speedy trial. When a person is charged with a crime, having the case concluded in within the speedy trial period is critical. It infringes on a person's rights to be held for long periods of time without moving their cases forward. Virtual hearings with Judges to decide matters of law are much less problematic in civil cases. Persons charged with crimes have a right to confront their accusers in person. This is generally not achieved in a virtual meeting space.
If social distancing is still necessary in the coming months, it is likely that jury trials will resume in some form. The Florida Supreme Court is currently exploring options to resume jury trials. Jury service is already inconvenient, and I worry that even with safeguards in place, potential jurors will be distracted from paying attention to the case or rush to decide the case for fear of being infected by the Covid virus.
Some Florida prisoners were released early due to Covid
Social distancing may mean delays for some criminal defendants awaiting trial but could help others get out of custody more quickly. Covid is a huge problem in jails and prisons and is a concern for both prisoners and staff alike. Florida jails have released prisoners that are close to the end of their sentence, especially if they are older or have medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus. Chief Judge Raul Zambrano has been signing early release orders for inmates at the Volusia County Branch Jail that were being held for non-violent misdemeanor and felony charges. Other Volusia County prisoners were freed if they had 30 days or less remaining on their sentence.
The virus has caused fewer arrests
The Daytona Beach News Journal reports that corona virus is causing police officers in Volusia County to choose their citation books over their handcuffs to avoid exposing themselves to the virus. This means that alleged offenders that would have ordinarily been arrested are instead being issued notices to appear. Likewise, less people are being held without bond unless they have been charged with the most serious offenses.
Violations of Covid restrictions are crimes
When businesses do not comply with state or local laws, their managers and owners are technically subject to arrest, but police look to educate rather than arrest business owners. Initially, there were few arrests for violating Covid restrictions due to a general attitude of compliance. The first Volusia County arrest for a violation of Florida's Safer-At-Home order was James T. Grimes, a 28-year-old man that violated the order by leaving his home to attack his girlfriend at her place of business. He is being charged with violation of a disaster preparedness emergency management order in addition to charges for battery by strangulation, kidnapping, false imprisonment and domestic battery. He is being held in the Volusia County Branch jail on $25,500 bail due to the violent offense. There has been a steady increase in charges of violating the emergency management order being issued here in Volusia County.
Virtual justice expanding and jury trials still delayed
Elsewhere in the State of Florida, police officers and civilians have successfully used the kiosks for video interviews. Creative methods of handling criminal justice matters are coming onboard every day to cope with the necessity of dispensing justice while keeping a distance. In Volusia County, first appearance hearings continue to be held in person, but many other appearances are being held remotely. The Federal and State Constitutions require that criminal defendants be tried by a jury of their peers, but that is not going to be happening in Florida any time soon. Florida's Chief Justice has ruled that no jury trials will be taking place until at least May 29th, 2020.
We are open and available to help you with your criminal defense matter during this unprecedented time.