Courtrooms at the federal and state level have been ordered not to hold in-person hearings through at least mid-April, as part of Washington’s effort to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Thomas O. Rice issued an order Wednesday halting in-person hearings through April 14 in Spokane, Yakima and Richland. The Washington Supreme Court followed suit Wednesday evening, issuing an order to halt jury trials through April 24 throughout the state.
The federal order will not prohibit the U.S. Attorney’s Office from handling cases, said William Hyslop, U.S. Attorney in Eastern Washington.
“The wheels of justice will not slow down,” said Hyslop in a phone interview Thursday. “We are taking necessary health precautions. We will have a presence here.”
The 10-page state Supreme Court order is sweeping in its cancellation of in-person hearings, but allows for court work to be performed electronically in some circumstances. That includes first appearances before judges after arrest, arraignments, criminal motions and plea hearings. Local judges were ordered to prioritize hearings that might lead to early release for some defendants or modification of release conditions, as Spokane courts look to determine whether some inmates should be released from custody in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus in jails and prisons.
The order, signed by Chief Justice Debra L. Stephens, was not unanimous. Four justices called for more sweeping regulations of court activities, including ending the practice of judges issuing warrants for arrest from the bench “without a specific finding that the alleged violation poses a serious threat to public safety.”
“Issuing bench warrants without such a finding of serious threat to public safety only serves to funnel more people into detention or for individuals to have outstanding warrants on their record,” the four dissenting justices wrote.
Ashley Callan, administrator of Spokane Superior Courts, said Friday that local jury trials had already previously been canceled by an order handed down Monday. First appearances are occurring telephonically from the jail, with defense attorneys appearing live before a judge.
So far, the courts have not had to restrict public access to the courtroom during those first appearances, Callan said. But the county would do so if attendance exceeded health guidelines.
“We haven’t experienced a first appearance where we had a large flood of people show up to watch it,” Callan said. “Thankfully, people have stayed away.”
Court employees have not been ordered away from the coutrhouse, Callan said, but the department is working with their information technology employees to make that a reality.
Other local counties have put longer orders in place to lessen the number of in-person hearings. Ferry, Pend Oreille, Stevens and Whitman counties have canceled jury trials through April 30. Lincoln County Superior Court has rescheduled all jury trials through April 22 until after May 6.
Both orders eliminate the length of time of the ban on in-person hearings in calculating whether a defendant has had the right to a speedy trial, citing emergency circumstances. Roger Peven, a longtime Spokane defense attorney who headed the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington & North Idaho from 2002 to 2012, said he couldn’t remember a time when the federal courts had suspended hearings for so long.
Peven, whose private practice firm takes on federal criminal defendants, said he was concerned about his clients’ safety following the order from Rice.
“The health of clients is an unprecedented challenge, in my experience,” Peven said. “That’s what you’re concerned about.”
He noted different regional jails have different floor plans and procedures, which could lead to quicker spread in some facilities in Eastern Washington compared to others.
Peven also expressed concern about defendants in the Sobriety Treatment and Education (STEP) program, an alternative to criminal court for people with substance abuse issues. Those hearings typically take place on Thursdays, Peven said, but Rice’s order said those appearances will be determined on a case-by-case basis. Peven said he’d already been contacted by defendants in the program who are incarcerated asking about when they’d next appear before a judge.
Hyslop, who supervises assistant U.S. attorneys responsible for prosecuting cases, said he has directed many members of his staff to begin teleworking, when possible, but supervisors will remain in the office. Even though grand jury proceedings have been canceled as well, Hyslop said other methods can preserve public safety while waiting for a grand jury to hand down an indictment in a criminal case.
“If a crime is committed, and someone is arrested, we are equipped to deal with that,” Hyslop said.
The order also will remove from the courtroom naturalization ceremonies through the end of April. Rice authorized U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, to administer citizenship oaths to applicants until the ban is repealed. That agency has announced the closure of its public offices, including one in the Thomas S. Foley U.S. Courthouse in Spokane, through April 1.
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