Tarrant County Criminal Courts have reopened. The Office of Court Administration published Tarrant County’s approved safety plan on Friday, June 5, giving county officials the green light to get back to business. So what will this mean for defendants, attorneys and visitors? Here’s an overview of the plan and answers to some frequently asked questions.
On Friday, June 5, the Office of Court Administration published Tarrant County’s approved plan for reopening its courts. This plan outlines how the judges in Tarrant County plan on complying with the orders from the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. The following key restrictions will be in place:
In addition to the widely-published governor’s orders, Texas criminal courts also have to abide by orders issued by the Supreme Court of Texas and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which works closely with the Office of Court Administration (OCA). The OCA is the state agency that provides resources and guidance for state district and county courts in Texas and operates under the direction and supervision of the Texas Supreme Court.
To date, there have been 17 emergency orders regarding the COVID-19 state of disaster by the Supreme Court of Texas. Each of these orders are focused on ensuring the safety of everyone involved in the criminal justice system, including defendants, lawyers, judges, juries, and general public. These orders pushed back court dates back to ensure a reasonable level of safety for all participants.
In order for in-person court business to open back up, the county must submit a COVID-19 operating plan to the OCA detailing how officials plan to keep participants and the public safe from infection. The plan must lay out how it will ensure adequate social distancing, reduce courthouse occupancy, screen courthouse workers and visitors, and comply with state-wide restrictions. Once approved by the OCA, courts can get back to business.
The Office of Court Administration provided a template, which if used, is easily approved. Counties seeking to modify the template or submit their own plan will have to show how their plan meets the requirements set forth by the Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals, and the Office of Court Administration. Tarrant County’s plan wasn’t approved until the first week of June.
Pursuant to the 17th Emergency Order Regarding the Covid-19 State of Disaster, the Supreme Court of Texas prohibits jury trials from being conducted, with limited exception, until at least August 1, 2020. Even when trials resume, expect individuals who are in jail awaiting trial and cases involving child sexual assault allegations to be set before cases involving defendants who are free on bond while awaiting trial.
While courts are undoubtedly eager to get back to some semblance of normalcy, there could still be issues seating a jury after August 1, 2020. If certain segments of the population are restricted from coming to the courthouse because of age or health concerns, challenges may be raised regarding whether the potential jurors represent a fair cross-section of the community. Of course, each individual juror summoned to jury duty will also have to determine if he or she is going to show up or not. While disobeying a jury summons can result in arrest and an order of contempt from the court, it is hard to imagine an elected judge in Tarrant County putting someone in jail, exposing them to the COVID pandemic, if their reason for non-appearance was due to a health concern.
Additionally, the OCA is considering pushing the date back to August 15, 2020.
Yes, grand juries can meet by video conference or in person as long as the social distancing and group size requirements are met. Courts are encouraged to extend the grand jury terms during this time.
As of right now, there’s not a unified plan regarding the way virtual dockets are conducted. One of the challenges of having 20 elected judges, each in charge of their own court, is that it can be challenging to find a consensus. Some courts have attorneys and clients check in for a “Zoom docket.” Others only have clients appear by Zoom if they are set for a plea. Only a limited number of in-custody pleas occur each day.
Yes. The Supreme Court of Texas requires that virtual dockets are streamed online, and the high court strongly suggests the streaming take place through Youtube. You can watch Tarrant County (or any other county) court proceedings live here: http://streams.txcourts.gov/.
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