With Court Restrictions Extended To June, Judges, Attorneys Adjust To New Way Of Doing Business

With Court Restrictions Extended To June, Judges, Attorneys Adjust To New Way Of Doing Business
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SNOW HILL — With Maryland’s top judge this week extending limitations and restrictions on the state’s legal system through at least June 5, local judges and attorneys continue to navigate a new but temporary normal in the daily machinations of the local legal system.

Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Mary Ellen Barbera on Tuesday issued a pair of second-amended administrative orders expanding and extending statewide judiciary restricted operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic through June 5. Barbera first issued orders March 17 limiting court proceedings and access to courthouses and other facilities where individuals typically gather during the daily operations of the legal system.

As a result, legal situations requiring immediate and urgent action such as bail reviews, child custody cases, juvenile detention cases, and domestic violence protective orders and the like continue on a daily basis, albeit most often under remote technological circumstances with few exceptions. Otherwise, there are few if any trials held and cases that would have, under normal circumstances, been adjudicated and verdicts and sentences meted out remain unresolved for the most part.

Barbera issued two amended administrative orders on Tuesday, one of which extends the new normal for the state’s judiciary system until at least June 5. The second offers guidance to judges and court system stakeholders on the potential release of certain inmates at-risk of contracting or spreading the coronavirus while in custody under specific circumstances with a focus on ensuring public safety.

In short, if there are non-violent inmates in custody whose health are at risk, or who puts jail staffers or other inmates at risk of infection, they could be released under specific circumstances. That does not mean, however, that prison doors are automatically going to swing wide, allowing a potentially dangerous element back into society.

Under the first order, Circuit Court and District Court judges are “encouraged to communicate with justice system stakeholders to identify at-risk incarcerated persons for potential release to protect the health of at-risk incarcerated persons during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, with careful regard for the safety of victims and communities in general; with respect to the statutory rights of victims; and with due consideration given to public health concerns related to inmates who may have contracted COVID-19.”

In terms of the second order that extends restrictions and limitations on the state’s judiciary system, Worcester County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Brian Shockley said this week the courts will adjust and adapt to the changing directives and maintain some semblance of a working and effective legal system.

“These are difficult times for everyone, but the court is committed to performing its core functions in a manner that is safe for all parties, attorneys and court staff,” he said.

Despite the public perception Maryland’s legal system is essentially shut down, Shockley said it is largely business as usual, albeit in a uniquely different way.

“Contrary to popular belief, the courts are not closed,” he said. “We continue to operate, but in a limited capacity. We continue to process all pleadings and matters that do not require a court hearing. Additionally, we continue to hear emergency matters such as bail reviews, guardianships, child welfare cases, juvenile detentions and emergency custody cases. Whenever possible, hearings are conducted using remote video technology, thereby eliminating the need for in-person attendance.”

Shockley said no trials are being held, particularly jury trials, given the physical limitations of the courthouses and the social distancing directives.

“Given the difficulty in safely assembling jurors in the courthouse during these times, all jury trials are suspended through June 5,” he said. “We continue to operate our very important drug court program with our participants using remote video technology. Our pro se family law project is still available to provide assistance in family law, domestic violence and guardianship matters.”

Meanwhile, with the physical courthouses essentially closed, trials are not being held, creating a backlog of cases that will need to be adjudicated once the restrictions are eased. On the bright side, crime appears to be down significantly with most adhering to the stay at home directives, suggesting a “flattening of the curve” of a different sort.

Worcester County State’s Attorney Kris Heiser said having the courts basically shut down is creating challenges in terms of quickly and efficiently adjudicating cases, but acknowledged the backlog could be eased somewhat further down the road because of lower crime rates, at least locally.

“We are grateful that crime is down, and law enforcement is in agreement generally that a very high percentage of our Worcester County citizens are abiding by the governor’s orders, which is also good news,” she said.

Despite the tentative June 5 extension, Heiser said while some cases could be heard after that date, most jury trials could linger well into summer under the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association (MSSA) interpretation.

“MSAA is interpreting the court’s latest orders to mean that courts will continue to operate in a restricted manner, as they currently are, until at least June 5,” she said. “For six weeks after that, no jury trials will be allowed, meaning we get to the end of July before the Court will even contemplate scheduling jury trials. One can only imagine what precautionary measures will be required at that point in time, and what the public’s reaction to getting a jury summons will be.”

Heiser echoed Shockley’s sentiments about the physical limitations of the court facilities and social distancing and a return to normal. As a result, the system could look different even after the restrictions are eased.

“Our courthouses, like many other public buildings, are not really designed to allow for social distancing and neither is the jury selection process,” she said. “I believe that significant changes will have to be made to a variety of court operations because of that fact.”

In terms of Barbera’s second order regarding the potential release of inmates because of concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Heiser said her office remains receptive to the concept, but is not in a rush to simply open the doors of correctional facilities. The MSSA is following the guidelines issued by Barbera and each individual will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

“I understand that other counties and other State’s Attorneys have taken many different positions with regard to those incarcerated during this unprecedented shutdown,” she said.  “In Worcester County, we continue to work to make sure that any person who poses a threat to public safety continues to be held, whether they are pre-trial or post-trial, but pre-sentencing.”

Heiser said with public safety and public health resources dedicated to battling the pandemic, considering releasing certain inmates and adding them to an already-stressed community could be premature.

“Our commitment to keep the citizens of Worcester County safe remains the same, regardless of any health crisis or economic shutdown,” she said.  “In fact, it could be argued that it is even more imperative now than ever to make sure that dangerous criminals are not back on our streets. Our police, first responders, doctors and nurses on the front lines are already facing significant challenges simply dealing with the virus.”

In some cases, those who have been charged with crimes remain in custody awaiting trials that keep getting pushed back. In other rare cases, some detainees have already had their cases adjudicated and are awaiting sentencing hearings. Heiser said all cases regarding the potential release of inmates would be weighed carefully on a case-by-case basis.

“However, with the assistance of the warden and the Office of the Public Defender, we are also evaluating each locally-incarcerated defendant’s circumstances on a case by case basis, considering their overall health and risk level for contracting COVID-19, in addition to the normal legal factors which would weigh in favor of or against release,” she said. “Certainly, if there are any individuals who we expect to receive a sentence of incarceration which is less than the time they have already served pending trial or sentencing, we would consider that fact as well. I will say that it is not unusual for the defendant’s expectation of sentence to be far less than the state’s expectation of sentence or the sentence for which the state intends to argue.”

Like Shockley and his colleagues on the bench all across Maryland, Heiser said court closures do not necessarily mean significant downtime for prosecutors and her staff. Instead, they are utilizing the time to make the judicial process even more efficient when the time is right and the restrictions are relaxed.

“In the meantime, our prosecutors still participate in bond reviews and respond to motions and we are preparing for the full reopening of the courts by increasing our technological capabilities and software systems,” she said. “Because of the shutdown, my entire team has had an increased ability to focus on this huge data review and implementation project, which will be ongoing until at least the end of June,” she said. “The system will interface with the courts’ electronic filing system and will greatly increase our efficiency in the office, so that when we can start trying cases again, we will be even better prepared. We are all making the most of the situation as best we can.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.