By: Mark Diaz
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Galveston Criminal Attorney Discusses Impact of Pandemic on Criminal Justice System
How Has the COVID Pandemic Affected Criminal Cases?
And, you know, this topic came from an article that I read that tracked crime statistics across several large states in the United States, trying to determine what effect, if any, COVID had on those statistics. I’ll talk about that a little bit, but I am also going to talk about how it’s still affecting, has affected, and may continue to affect us.
As far as affecting crime statistics in Galveston County, it only saw a dip. In the very beginning when we had massive shutdowns, local agencies were given directives not to arrest people for petty offenses. Unless there were some extenuating circumstances. The reason behind that, was because they didn’t want the pandemic spreading through the jail, and they wanted to limit exposure as much as possible.
In the beginning, when we had that situation, you saw a lot of petty crime not being charged as much. I remember from back then watching bodycam footage of officers, and sometimes the accused, being concerned about being within six feet of a suspect, or the suspect demanding that the officers give him his six feet.
Trial Backlog In Galveston County
We have well moved on from all that. We do not see it in Criminal Defense much here in Galveston County anymore. The effects that we are kind of still dealing with, and I don’t know what that’s going to continue to look like, is pretty much all the courts. We have a trial backlog because there was a time when it was irresponsible to have a lot of people in the courthouse, and certainly not to have jury trials. So, we could not have any, which means that trial cases just kept backing up and backing up.
Some courts have a trial backlog through no fault of their own, just because of the volume of cases that were unable to be dealt with because of the pandemic. As a result, during the height of the pandemic, our district attorney’s office was pretty good about working out cases that could be worked out, and getting people either out on bond, or plead to reduce the jail population.
A lot of the cases that my office has currently sitting on trial dockets are all serious offenses, where people are potentially facing a very large amount of time. While the delay is certainly uncomfortable, it’s not necessarily affecting some of my clients because of the nature of the charges that they’re facing. The potential sentences that could result.
People ask me all the time how long I think their case is going to take to get to a resolution and at this point, we don’t have an answer. I don’t know when we’ll ever get back to normal operations in the courthouse. The courts have resumed jury trials here, but we still can’t pack people into the jury assembly room like we used to. So, they’ve split up the dockets where this court can pick a jury on a Monday, but then the next court can’t pick a jury until Tuesday, and so on.
Courts Still Making Room For Social Distancing
Whereas before, we might have three courts in the courthouse all going to trial at the same time, because we could pack all those people into a jury assembly room and end up with several jury panels going to each court for their jury selection. Due to the pandemic, we’re still not able to do that. They have made the jury assembly room socially distanced. That means only one court can use the facility at a time, which means that we won’t have multiple trials going on in different courts unless we can get to a point where we can utilize that space again.
The courts are now still making room for the jurors to be socially distant, right before the last call away with the COVID spike in numbers, which was before the fire that affected the courthouse, there were two courts that had their juries sitting back in the jury box like normal. In those cases, the judge of each court asked each juror individually if they were comfortable with that, and made it clear that if they were not, they could be spread out or distant. In those trials, that I’m aware of, the juries all said no it’s fine.
Now that we’re coming out of that most recent wave of infections, I don’t know what it’s going to look like until trials start happening again. We just continue watching the daily numbers to see what’s going to happen. It is the same way with the in-session court right now. Some courts allow people to appear in person. Some courts prefer not to have courtrooms full of people. We just have to know which court is taking what position all the time so we can properly inform our clients.
On the opposite side, there are courts right now issuing bond forfeitures for people that don’t appear. On the other hand, some courts are not, depending upon the attorney’s communication with the client and communication with the court.
How Do You Handle COVID Positive Clients?
We have had several instances where we’ve had COVID positive clients, but they were able to get us medical documentation that we presented to the court and of course, the court accepted it and did not make that person appear. Which is helpful. If I have a COVID-positive client, I do not want them to come to court because I don’t want to be around them.
I don’t think I’ve heard of any court forcing someone to come to the courthouse that had proof of a positive COVID test. I think there was an issue with one court where someone showed up with symptoms or a high temperature. I have had a client who was denied entry to the courthouse. He either had a high temperature or was previously exposed to the virus.
The deputies in the front doing security radioed up to the bailiff of that court and let them know that my client was being denied entry because of COVID screening. They told him to leave and obviously, the judge let me get that individual a new court date.
From what I can tell the county is trying to be as proactive as possible, especially when it comes to keeping everyone safe. Since we had gotten to the point, before the last spike, that everything was normal, or at least certain judges were trying to get back to as much normal as possible, now with flu season coming up, I don’t know what it’s going to look like.
Arrests For Petty Crimes Dropped
When people want to know how COVID has affected the criminal justice system, I think in the very beginning, before everyone knew what to do, or how to deal with it, and hadn’t started practicing social distancing, there was a slight decrease in certain arrests of petty crimes. Not the big crimes, they were still being arrested and jailed. However now that has gotten back to normal, as I said, courts have now again started jury trials in Galveston. So, it’s moving forward.
Each court is trying to hone down on their trial cases and what is actually going to go to trial, so that we don’t waste any potential jurors’ time, or our time. I guess you could say the courts are being selective about which cases are being tried. It’s sort of the general opinion that the more important cases need to be tried because they’ve been waiting for so long.
As well as the people in custody need to be tried because they have been in custody for so long waiting for this trial. Being in custody does cost the county money. Whether a person is released because of their innocence, or on bond, or if they move on to another facility like a prison, the jail likes it when people leave, because it’s costing the county money.
How long will it take us to get back to normal court operations? I don’t know. I don’t even have a very creative answer on how we clear out the existing dockets, because like I said, from what I can tell, at least in my practice, there are not a lot of garbage cases on the trial docket. They’re all cases that need to be tried by a jury. We just must keep going like this until we can get through these trials.
Contact Mark Diaz & Associates
If you have been charged with a crime in the Galveston County area or nearby contact the Galveston County criminal defense lawyers at Mark Diaz & Associates to discuss your case at (409) 515-6170.