PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. (CBS12) — Coronavirus is keeping courts in Florida closed, to some extent.
The pandemic is not only testing the patience of Florida attorneys but also the constitutional rights of defendants. Since March, trials by jury have been put on hold and individual judicial circuits are working to reopen as safely as possible.
The Florida Supreme Court puts out administrative orders adapting to changes forced by COVID-19. The orders spell out exactly how the courts are allowed to operate and reopen, based on a four-phase system.
On the Treasure Coast, which makes up the 19th Judicial Circuit, courts are in Phase 2, meaning some face-to-face interaction is allowed. For anyone entering courtrooms there, they must be wearing a mask, have a temperature under 100.4 degrees, and practice social distancing.
Simple proceedings like first appearance or witness testimony can happen in Florida through video calls.
"I've had as many as 60 people on the screen at one time," said Robert Meadows, a 19th Circuit Court judge. He says there are many frustrations to the video proceedings, but at least it gets the court moving.
What is struggling to move along, are trials by jury; they require two teams of lawyers, defendants and plaintiffs, the judge, and a pool of jurors, which in most cases is made up of six people.
With the state surpassing more than 370,000 cases, Palm Beach County ranking third in the state with the most confirmed cases, and South Florida now deemed the epicenter of the virus, State Attorney Dave Aronberg says slowly reopening is the right thing to do.
"This is really driven by the pandemic," he said. "It's driven by science. As much as we would love to have the courthouses open for jury trials that's not realistic right now because the pandemic is coming back stronger than ever."
Aronberg announced on Twitter he had tested positive for COVID-19.
Palm Beach County, which makes up the 15th judicial circuit, sits in Phase 1. According to court records from the County Clerk and Comptroller's Office, the last time the county sent our jury summons was on March 26 to 2,555 residents.
For now, defendants waiting to stand trial, are forced to wait longer. Aronberg says arrangements have been made for non-violent offenders to bail out on reduced bond and await their trials while on house arrest.
Florida defense attorney Stuart Kaplan represents three defendants whose trials are stalled.
"My biggest concern is when I have cases that come down to eye witness testimony," he said. "People's memory can sometimes be changed or forgetful and so what we have been doing is we have utilized more private or investigative resources to go out and secure that kind of testimony that we think may be changed or lost."
Kaplan says if jury trials are stalled long enough it could pose questions on whether constitutional rights, like trial by jury or a speedy trial, will be violated. According to Florida law, a delay in trial is acceptable under exceptional circumstances that are unforeseeable and unavoidable. When it comes to constitutional rights, Aronberg says they are safe for now.
"I think as long as there is a direct correlation between the shutdown of jury trials to the existence of a pandemic, then constitutional rights are not being violated."
So just like hearings and first appearance, can trials happen virtually? Florida is testing a civil jury trial pilot program with five circuits:
Each circuit will report back findings and critiques and submit it to the state by October. In Broward County, which makes up the 17th judicial circuit, the court has played with virtual mock trials to see how it would look.
However, attorneys like Kaplan say an in person trial serves justice far better than virtual
"I think it's important for the judge to assess the witnesses in person," he said. Behind the computer screen, I think it's just too relaxed. We need people to come in and understand the seriousness of what has been asked of them."
Both sides of the courtroom say even if courts get the blessing to conduct trials in person, the next challenge would be to find people who are willing to serve on a jury with strangers.