10 months have passed since the coronavirus took hold in the United States and prompted the enforcement of mandatory social distancing guidelines. Nonessential workers were unable to return to their places of employment. Children were unable to attend school in person. Courts suspended in-person proceedings. Since then, stay-at-home orders have been lifted and then reinstated in various cities, counties, and states across the country.
Today, the outlook is much improved. We have finally entered a new year. 2021 brings new opportunities as well as challenges that we must overcome to bring an end to the pandemic once and for all. In Florida, children have returned to school. Restaurants and other businesses have reopened. Many courts have resumed in-person operations—all with social distancing guidelines in effect to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The Florida Courts recently issued an update on COVID compliance and how it is affecting various courts across the state.
According to the update, all courts are monitoring local public health data and are:
- Temporarily suspending in-person proceedings; or
- Limiting the number of trials permitted.
Each court’s approach will vary depending on the current health data in their area of operation and will adjust their approach to in-person proceedings as needed. The goal is always to put the health of court employees and visitors first. All courts are also implementing standard social distancing guidelines.
The Consequences of Florida Court Closures
Courts nationwide are dealing with unprecedented case backlogs due to the coronavirus pandemic. As we first discussed in our blog, How COVID-19 Is Impacting Criminal Cases in Florida, in-person proceedings at all courts statewide were temporarily suspended in mid-March 2020.
This marked the beginning of a series of closures that would create a backlog of nearly 1,000,000 cases in Florida alone. The backlog includes about 31,000 pending felony cases that are expected to take several years to work through. From July through November 2020, the state’s prison population dropped by about 7,000 inmates, another effect of the court closures.
The Florida court system has asked lawmakers for tens of millions of dollars in funding to address the growing backlog. According to a report from The Florida Bar, the Trial Court Budget Commission has included about $37 million in its budget request to handle the immense task of clearing the backlog. The money would be used over the next 3 years to hire personnel and handle operating expenses.
How Will Court Closures & Backlogs Affect My Case?
Although courts continue to limit in-person proceedings, they are using new remote technology to handle cases as fast as they can. Unfortunately, the pandemic has contributed to its fair share of criminal and civil cases, and these will only add to the backlog.
COVID-19 has also affected criminal court proceedings in ways other than by limiting in-person proceedings:
- Some witnesses are unavailable or unable to come to court to testify due to their age, health, or other factors that put them at a high risk of harm from the coronavirus.
- Certain demographics may be underrepresented in juries due to suspended public transportation or vulnerability to exposure.
Another key concern is how court closures and limitations will affect one’s constitutional right to a speedy trial. In accordance with the Sixth Amendment and the Speedy Trial Act, courts are currently addressing this on a case-by-case basis, weighing the length of the delay against the cause (the coronavirus and court closures). Unfortunately, this is not foolproof. Some defendants have been wrongfully detained while others have been released.
We Put Your Rights & Interests First
If you or someone you know has been arrested or has already been charged with a crime, you deserve the level of legal representation that will help you through—in spite of the additional challenges we’re all facing during the pandemic. COVID-19 is still affecting operations in all Florida courts, but this does not mean that your right to a speedy trial should be waived or that you should have a poorly selected jury to try your case.
At Thomas & Paulk, P.A., we have decades of experience defending clients in and around Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County, and beyond. Our criminal defense attorneys know the local courts, judges, prosecutors, and court personnel. We know how to navigate the challenges presented by the coronavirus while always putting our clients’ rights and interests first.
Call (813) 321-7323 today for a confidential review of your case.