The COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic has upended the day-to-day operations of Ohio Criminal Courts and is raising a myriad of questions about how courts must manage their role in safeguarding defendant’s rights against the weight of public health and safety.
The Judicial Branch stands as a guardian of civil liberties and plays a critical role during emergencies. Ohio Courts may issue orders authorizing certain actions to protect public health or make rulings where there are actions that may interfere with civil rights. One such example is Ohio’ s primary election . Ohio delayed in-person voting until June 2020, an extraordinary measure meant to protect voters and poll workers from possible exposure to the contagious virus.
In a public health context, legal issues may involve the exercise of power by public health agencies, implementing laws to protect the public’s health or safety in a pandemic crisis. A landmark case, dating back to 1904, discussed the subject of public health regulations in the response to the deadly and uncontrolled transmission of smallpox and it is possible those will be used as a framework to respond to Covid 19.
A widespread and highly contagious infectious disease outbreak can also create a unique challenge for the judicial system. As demonstrated recently in response to the coronavirus, a state may respond in measures intended to stop the spread of the disease, such as Governor Mike DeWine’s Stay At Home order in Ohio. But, the courts are reeling on how to quickly respond and function under the new public health constraints.
Ohio Criminal Courts Remain Open During Emergencies
To perform their important role, courts must remain open during a public health emergency. Judicial operations have been affected by other health epidemics, like the smallpox outbreaks in the early 1900s, as well as natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and terrorist attacks, such as what occurred on September 11, 2001. In response to those crises, Court Orders were issued to modify court operations and change or suspend deadlines.
Impact in Ohio- Federal and State Courts
Recently (March 27, 2020), a deputy at the Franklin County Sheriff’s office, assigned to the jail facility on Jackson Pike, tested positive for the coronavirus. Quickly following this disclosure, the three largest public safety agencies in Franklin County, Ohio (the Columbus Division of Police and Fire and the Franklin County Sheriff’s office) announced they will no longer release the number of personnel who have tested positive for Covid 19. The public safety agencies believe this information falls under “critical infrastructure”, and therefore is protected information, preventing the release of this data to the public.
Bond Hearings for Incarcerated Individuals
But what if your son, daughter, spouse or another close family member is incarcerated at a local jail or prison? Don’t you as a family member, or the inmate, have a right to know whether the place of incarceration has become a mini-epicenter for the spread of coronavirus and the continued incarceration there endangers his or her life?
Because of the First Step Act, the compassionate release program at federal institutions has been expanded to where federal inmates can directly petition the federal district court for their release.
Although the First Step Act applies only to federal inmates, most state court judges are continuing to hold bond hearings via video or email. Judges are keenly aware of the dangers of the spread of Covid 19 in a jail setting. For example, on Monday, March 30, 2020, the Franklin County Jail began to release certain low-level inmates to try and slow the spread of the virus by decreasing jail populations. Within a week, the jail population in Franklin County (March 23-March 30) has decreased 25%.
It is likely that the State Department of Corrections will follow suit and likewise begin to release inmates who are non-violent and/or have less than 12 months of time remaining on a sentence.
Ohioans have never faced such uncertainty as they are facing today
Everyone, ranging from judges to courtroom personnel to attorneys and even to defendants now must confront a stark reality. Jury trials have been suspended in several states and courtroom proceedings have gone from being open to the public to completely shut down. Judges are being forced to prioritize urgent case matters on their dockets and may be required to lean on technology instead of traditional face to face hearings. Recently, Ohio’s Attorney General stated in an opinion that “courts may suspend jury trials for up to 270 days under state law in a pandemic emergency, because they could pose a health risk to jurors, to court personnel and to defendants”. As a guide, The Supreme Court of Ohio, has encouraged “respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene” and acknowledged the role that technology may play by pledging to release $4 million in grants for courts to obtain video conferencing equipment. These measures may help to keep Ohio’s courts moving forward as best as possible in these trying times.
What Ohio Criminal Courts remaining open during the COVID-19 pandemic means for you
These measures may result in changes for Ohio’s criminal defendants. Delays mean longer periods between hearings or serious questions about civil liberties and constitutional rights. These disruptions will also create a backlog that will likely burden an overstretched court system when things return to “normal”. Many families are fearful of the crowded, unsanitary conditions of jails and prisons, compounded when asymptomatic, potentially infectious persons enter into these confined spaces.
It also means that this is a critical time. Defendants still have civil liberties, in spite of this state of emergency. Judges and Columbus, Ohio attorneys will work together to ensure that actions taken to protect public health have a solid legal foundation and respect the rights of individuals affected by those actions.
Each day brings new challenges in the face of the Covid 19 pandemic and it is important to understand your rights. Don’t wait, call Attorney Joe Edwards for a free consultation today. (614)309-0243