Many courts across the nation have changed the way they operate temporarily in response to COVID-19. Every court or court jurisdiction, including those in Tennessee, are making modifications based on local and regional circumstances. These have included limiting courthouse access, closing courthouses, canceling non-case related operations and activities, allowing videoconferencing of court proceedings and rescheduling hearings, oral arguments, and trials.
Courtrooms in Tennessee were scheduled to reopen at the end of April. However, the state Supreme Court issued an order on April 24 extending the closure for most state courts through the end of May. In addition, the order also delays jury trials until July 3.
The order pushes forward the March 25 order until May 31, with the expectation that judicial districts will be able to lift some other restrictions after the Supreme Court has approved district plans for limited access to courtrooms, social distancing, and other public health strategies designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The latest order applies to all local and state courts in the state. This includes municipal courts, general session courts, state circuit courts, juvenile courts, and chancery courts.
The order also reschedules deadlines established in court statutes, court rules, and administrative rules that are scheduled to land anywhere between March 13 and March 31, 2020. These deadlines have now been reset to June 5, 2020.
The reported reason for the extensions mentioned above is due to the Supreme Court’s observation that cases of the coronavirus have not sufficiently reduced since the end of April. The question is: what about justice for individuals in the court system awaiting their cases to be heard? Are they being denied justice? What about individuals who are awaiting trial who were not able to afford bail, or are not a candidate for stay-at-home programs, and must remain locked up during the pandemic? Does this constitute a denial of justice for many who are accused and will eventually be found not guilty?
The growing backlog of cases
Some courts in Tennessee are able to operate through audio or video conferencing. However, an increasing backlog of cases in the courts is adding to the previous backlogs that were present prior to the start of the coronavirus epidemic. As an example, Washington County recently had approximately 450 criminal cases and 1,300 general sessions cases scheduled to be heard. These cases are being rescheduled. Further severe backlogs could occur if a second wave of COVID-19 flares up in the Fall or Winter and there is no vaccine or powerful therapeutic options available at that time.
Effect on plea bargains
A large majority of criminal cases in the U.S. court system are settled through a plea bargain. With plea bargains, defendants generally plead guilty in exchange for reduced charges, lower number of charges, less severe sentence, or other leniency agreed to by the prosecutor. During the course of the coronavirus pandemic, prosecutors and defendants each have greater interests in reaching a plea bargain. In some, but not all cases, prosecutors may be eager to resolve their cases in order to take care of a growing case backlog. Defendants may want to take advantage of this eagerness and accept a reduced sentence if it can help them avoid incarceration and unhealthy jail conditions.
Effect on the right to a speedy trial
One of the premier rights criminal defendants are afforded under the United States Constitution is the right to a speedy trial. This right is provided under the Sixth Amendment. There are considerable concerns among criminal justice advocates in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic that this constitutional right may be under threat for many. If this right is violated, courts have the authority to annul a conviction or sentence. There are specific time limits established by state legislatures for the prosecution to bring a defendant to trial. Due to mounting case backlogs, individuals who commit crimes could potentially avoided conviction because of this delay.
Since this right is established in the Bill of Rights, it is always in force, regardless of unforeseeable or emergency situations such as the COVID-19 outbreak. This situation and others do not provide a legal loophole for the denial of the right of the defendant to a speedy trial.
Current law in the U.S. built upon the Sixth Amendment states that legal proceedings must occur within 70 days of the filing date. Every day the COVID-19 situation is prolonged and court restrictions remain in force, your right to a speedy trial under the Constitution is more likely in jeopardy.
The Sevierville criminal defense attorneys at Delius & McKenzie, PLLC understand the various legal delays and complications arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. We prioritize the health and safety of our legal staff and clients above all other considerations. We offer legal representation services to individuals who live in Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Seymour, and surrounding Tennessee areas. Give us a call today at 865.428.8780 or fill out our contact form to schedule a free case evaluation.