Citing rising COVID-19 rates among the judiciary, attorneys, clients and the community, an association of Pensacola-area defense attorneys is asking courts to hit pause on plans to hold more face-to-face proceedings.
On Thursday, the Society of the Criminal Defense Bar sent a letter to First Circuit Chief Judge John L. Miller asking him to return Escambia and Santa Rosa counties to “Phase 1” operations, a status where the courts would handle only essential cases and conduct most proceedings remotely.
“We are asking to return to Phase 1 for our safety, the safety of our clients, and the safety of the public at large,” the letter said. “Unfortunately, COVID-19 is spreading in our neighborhoods, our communities, and our jails, and we need to address it headon.”
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Right now, First Judicial Circuit courts in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties are operating in Phase 2, meaning attorneys have begun to return to courtrooms for more routine hearings like docket management days and plea days.
The court moved to Phase 2 in mid-June, after a period in late May when COVID-19 cases were seemingly declining across Florida. In recent weeks, however, COVID-19 has come roaring back. At both local and state levels, health officials have repeatedly seen record-setting numbers of new COVID-19 cases throughout June and July.
Chief Circuit Judge John Miller uses online technology to handle a family law hearing in his chambers via zoom on Wednesday, July 1, 2020. (Photo: Tony Giberson/[email protected])
The Florida Department of Health reported 205 new COVID-19 cases in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties on Friday alone, and more than 4,500 cases overall.
The Society of the Criminal Defense Bar’s letter indicated the criminal justice system has not been spared from the surge.
“It is our understanding that at least one member of the judiciary in Escambia County is currently self-isolating due to direct exposure to the coronavirus,” the letter said. “It is also our understanding that at least two assistant state attorneys in Escambia County are currently self-isolating due to direct exposure to the coronavirus. One of these prosecutors did not realize that she had been exposed until after attending an in-person docket. We can confirm that at least one of our members, who has been present for many of the in-person dockets over the past few weeks, tested positive for coronavirus this week, and had to be hospitalized.”
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The letter continued that over the past few weeks, several of the Society’s members had been forced to self-isolate due to COVID-19-related symptoms or exposure to positive clients or family members. The missive also said that COVID-19 outbreaks had been reported in jails in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Walton counties.
The Society noted that while it could not attest to the full scope of the COVID-19 pandemic in our area, its position is conditions have deteriorated to a point that we no longer meet the health benchmarks necessary to operate in Phase 2.
Those benchmarks include no confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 in the courthouse/court facilities within 14 days; rescission of local and state restrictive movement and/or stay at home orders; and improving COVID-19 health conditions over a 14-day period in the community.
The Society has asked the court to provide the public with an analysis of where Escambia and Santa Rosa counties currently stand in regard to the benchmarks, and that the Society’s members be involved in future discussions of the court’s operational plans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Miller has said protecting the health and safety of staff, attorneys, litigants and the public is of top priority to the court. The First Circuit has implemented numerous systems to try to stem the spread of COVID-19 within its walls. Jury trials have been suspended for months, face masks are universally required in court facilities, and all entrants are asked screening questions and given temperature checks at the front door.
Still, the court, staff from offices of the state attorney and the public defender have worked diligently to keep processing cases. Currently, the expectation is it will take approximately one year to work down the backlog of cases that has built up while trials are suspended.
The Society noted that during the shutdown its “caseloads stagnated and many of us suffered financially,” so the call to return to Phase 1 was not made lightly.
“We appreciate all of the hard work that has gone into getting things moving again,” the Society’s letter said. “The current surge of COVID-19 in our area was unexpected. However, that does not change the fact that it is here.”
Kevin Robinson can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8527.
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