Florida jury trials suspended until July

Jury trials (Capitol News Service)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady issued an order Monday suspending jury trials through July 2 and directing courts to hold other types of proceedings by telephone or video conference.

Trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at courthouses, Canady had earlier suspended jury trials, jury selection and grand-jury proceedings through May 29.

“The statewide halting of jury trials for months on end is pretty unprecedented,” said Sumayya Saleh, with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Along with extending the suspension, Canady’s order directed that proceedings such as non-jury trials, motion hearings, juvenile-delinquency hearings and hearings in non-criminal traffic infraction cases be held by telephone or videoconference.

The order would allow circuit chief judges to decide whether holding such proceedings remotely would be barred legally or would not be feasible for technology reasons.

As in earlier orders, Canady also wrote that circuit and county courts “shall continue to perform essential court proceedings,” such as first-appearance hearings in criminal cases, bail hearings for people in jail and hearings to determine whether people should be involuntarily committed under the Baker Act.

“No proceedings or other court events other than essential proceedings and proceedings critical to the state of emergency or the public health emergency shall be conducted through in-person hearings,” Canady wrote.

He also added, “In conducting essential proceedings and proceedings critical to the state of emergency or the public health emergency, circuit and county courts shall employ all methods feasible to minimize risk of COVID-19 exposure to individuals involved in the proceedings or the general public.”

There have been local efforts by some, such as Second Judicial Circuit State Attorney Jack Campbell, to prevent cases from piling up, by reducing arrests for minor offenses and releasing some low-level offenders.

“We’ve been very busy trying to get those people we can out,” Campbell said.

Statewide, there were 43,379 arrests in March and 21,985 in April, according to numbers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It’s about a 50% reduction, but Saleh pointed out those convicted of more serious crimes are stuck in a legal limbo.

“There are still thousands of people locked up in jails around the state, and those thousands of people all have jury trial rights,” Saleh said.

Campbell agreed that there’s going to be a massive backlog.

“It’s very rare that the system works without that ultimate deciding factor,” Campbell said.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is slated Wednesday to hold oral arguments by video conference for the first time.

And some of the virtual proceedings may be here to stay. A workgroup has been tasked with recommending what can stay online after the coronavirus pandemic.