Menu

Tarrant County Criminal Courts Have Reopened: What You Need to Know

By Benson Varghese

Last Updated: July 21st, 2020
Published on: June 2nd, 2020
Going to criminal court at the Tim Curry Justice Center

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.

What is the COVID-19 Operating Plan for Tarrant County Courts?

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:

  • The maximum number of people permitted in the gallery of each courtroom will be posted at each courtroom.¬† Family members and others are discouraged from attending.
  • Judges and court staff will be required to wear face coverings while in the courtrooms during in-person proceedings.
  • Judges may remove face coverings when, in the opinion of the judge, it is necessary when speaking for clarity.
  • All other individuals entering the courtrooms will be required to wear surgical face coverings and shall not remove those coverings except upon order of the judge.
  • Individuals will be strongly encouraged to bring a surgical face covering with them, but if the individual does not have a surgical face covering, a disposable surgical face covering will be provided by the sheriff’s department. Individuals will be strongly encouraged to wear the surgical face covering at all times while in the court building.
  • In-person proceedings shall be set at least 15 minutes apart to allow court building cleaning staff to clean the courtrooms between proceedings.
  • Except in instances where multi-person dockets are necessary, judges and court staff will set trials and hearings individually and will stagger them throughout the day rather than all at one setting. When multi-person dockets are necessary, judges and court staff will ensure that proper social distancing is maintained not only within the courtroom but also in the public areas outside the courtroom if all persons are not able to be in the courtroom at the same time.
  • Individuals who are over age 65 and individuals with serious underlying health conditions, such as high blood pressure, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and those whose immune systems are compromised such as by chemotherapy for cancer or other conditions requiring such therapy are considered to be vulnerable. The courts will make accommodations for these individuals.
  • All persons not from the same household who are permitted in the court building will be required to maintain adequate social distancing of at least 6 feet.
  • No more than 4 people can use an elevator at a time in the Tim Curry Justice Center. (Get ready to use the stairs if you want to be in court on time.)
  • The chairs/pews in the gallery of the courtroom have been marked to identify appropriate social distancing. Seating is limited to every other row.

The Scheduling Plan for the Criminal Courts for In-Person Dockets are as follows:

Monday (Felony)

  • 396th (6th Floor)
  • 371st (8th Floor)
  • CDC 1 (5th Floor)
  • 372nd (6th Floor)

Tuesday (Misdemeanor)

  • CCC1 (5th Floor)
  • CCC3 (7th Floor)
  • CCC5 (6th Floor)
  • CCC9 (8th Floor)
  • CCC4 (5th Floor)
  • CCC7 (8th Floor)
  • CCC8 (7th Floor)
  • CCC10 (7th Floor)

Wednesday (Felony)

  • 432nd (6th Floor)
  • 213th (5th Floor)
  • 297th (5th Floor)
  • CDC 3 (7th Floor)

Thursday (Misdemeanor)

  • CCC1 (5th Floor)
  • CCC2 (6th Floor)CCC4 (5th Floor)
  • CCC5 (6th Floor)
  • CCC6 (8th Floor)
  • CCC7 (8th Floor)
  • CCC8 (7th Floor)
  • CCC10 (7th Floor)

Friday  (Misdemeanor and Felony)

  • CDC 2 (6th Floor)
  • CDC 4 (8th Floor)
  • CCC2 (6th Floor)
  • CCC3 (7th Floor)
  • CCC6 (8th Floor)
  • CCC9 (8th Floor)

Why were my court dates being reset?

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.

Why did it take this long for Tarrant County Criminal Courts resumed normal business?

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.

When will jury trials resume in Tarrant County?

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.

Can a jury be seated after August 1, 2020?

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.

Are grand juries allowed to meet?

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.

My attorney says we are set for a virtual docket or a Zoom plea, what should I expect?

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.

Can I watch a court proceeding that is held virtually?

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/.

Contact us at (817) 203-2220 or reach out online.