Prosecutors, defense attorneys, courts adapt to COVID-19

Prosecutors, defense attorneys, courts adapt to COVID-19
The Franklin P. Backus Courthouse in Old Town. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Alexandria’s courts, prosecutors and defenders to balance health concerns with legal processes and constitutional rights.

Prior to Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) issuing a stay at home order on March 30, the city’s legal community was already assessing whether to close all three Alexandria courts: the Circuit Court, General District Court and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

After the order took effect, the courts essentially closed to the public, and most hearing dates in March, April and May were pushed back. The few cases that did proceed on schedule transitioned to virtual hearings at the request of either the prosecution or defense.

“Our office position has been … that the only cases that absolutely must be called are ones where there is a particular time sensitivity,” Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney David Lord said. “Typically, we’re talking about someone who is in custody, and their liberty is essentially being restrained in some fashion.”

Judges, attorneys and clients have had to rethink a process that depended on in-person interaction.

“Anyone who does public defender work does it because they love the human interaction,” Deputy Public Defender Megan Thomas said. “Losing that, even temporarily, was just not an option for us.”

Early on in the pandemic, the Alexandria Sheriff’s Department set up video conferencing in the city jail, allowing attorneys and their clients to maintain some level of face-to-face communication during the pandemic.

But, for public defenders especially, delayed hearings and the concept of virtual hearings presented threats to their clients’ rights.

“For our clients, there are very specific constitutional concerns that come up with virtual hearings,” Thomas said. “The right to confront witnesses, the right to have your case go forward in a timely, speedy fashion, those are concerns when you have clients, particularly detained clients.”

With the virus posing an even greater threat to detained populations, actors throughout the legal community agreed to reexamine their approach to detention.

“We’re trying to recognize that during this particular time, the prosecution’s attitude toward that has to be a little more modified than it would at another time because of personal safety,” Lord said. “Our office is trying to focus mostly on, are there corrective or rehabilitative steps that a person can do that will make their situation better?”

As a result of active collaboration between members of the legal community, some nonviolent offenders were let out of custody, Thomas said.

While many cases were delayed, others, particularly those in juvenile court and treatment court, still required action. In those cases, the pandemic did little to slow the process.

The city’s juvenile court has continued to hold hearings throughout the pandemic using video conferencing, call-ins or in-person, socially distanced hearings.

Unlike the general district or circuit courts, the city’s juvenile court, which involves family law cases, has experienced an uptick in cases filed.

“We have seen a huge rise in the number of protective order cases that have come in our doors,” Katelin Moomau, a partner at Rich, Rosenthal, Brincefield, Manitta, Dzubin and Kroeger, PLLC, said.

People have been spending more time at home due to the governor’s stay at home order, and the situation has put a strain on even the healthiest of families, Moomau said. The avenues that are normally available for families going through difficult times have become narrower during the pandemic.

“Whether someone gets a protective order or not can have a big impact on their safety, but also the person who would potentially have the protective order against them, it has a big impact on potentially their employment situation and where they’re living,” Moomau said.

Many of the steps taken by the juvenile court early in the pandemic to keep hearings f lowing have been adopted by the city’s other courts, as they’ve started to open up more to the public.

Only a select few people relevant to the case are allowed in the courtroom during a hearing. Spaces were marked indicating the appropriate social distance. In addition, the court began taking a lot of attorneys’ filings online, even allowing attorneys to email exhibits to the judge.

Treatment court, which involves individuals going through treatment for alcoholism or drug addiction, has also continued to operate during the pandemic.

“In treatment court, individuals, unlike a regular system where you just come to court when you have court, treatment court, you have to be there every single week,” Lord said. “So, we didn’t want to lose that connection with our participants. We have virtual sessions every single week.”

Those involved in treatment court have continued to see their therapists via teletherapy and attend virtual meetings for community support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, Lord said.

Although not directly related to the courts, the clerk of court’s office has also adapted its suite of services to life during the pandemic.

Clerk of Court Greg Parks, who had been in the role for just over two months when the pandemic hit, ran his campaign on a platform of accessibility, transparency and digitization. The pandemic has resulted in Parks doubling down on many of his campaign promises.

Parks transitioned interactions with the public to Microsoft Teams, a free app that helped maintain access to the office’s services during the pandemic.

Virtually issuing marriage licenses takes longer to do than it would in-person, but maintaining access during the pandemic was necessary, with a surprising increase in demand for certain services, Parks said.

“I don’t know if people thought everything was going to shut down completely, and we were just going to stop issuing completely, but there was definitely a spike at the beginning of people wanting to get hitched,” Parks said.

Integrating a full electronic filing system in the office remains Parks’ long-term goal. The pandemic has helped illustrate the value that such a system can bring to the city, he said.

Beginning on June 15, the general district and circuit courts started to reopen in conjunction with the gradual reopening of the state. Courthouses started to accept reduced foot traffic, hearings could be held with social distancing, docket times were staggered and booths were set up in courthouse foyers to assist residents.

The latter has been important, especially as court dockets start to fill up again.

Residents with criminal or traffic cases are required to check-in at a booth in the courthouse foyer that is surrounded by a plexiglass screen and has masks and gloves available. By filtering foot traffic through the check-in booth, Lord, who mans the booth, is able to assist people on the spot, or at least direct them to the right online resources.

“As a result of that, we’re able to divert probably about 75 to 80 percent of what would be the normal foot traffic going into the court by being able to, for example, handle requests for continuances there at the booth,” Lord said.

The public defender’s office also has a booth set up where employees can meet with clients and take questions, Thomas said.

Those who do end up coming into the courthouse are required to wear a mask and undergo a screening questionnaire based on the most recent public health guidelines.

Diverting the majority of foot traffic elsewhere has put the onus on the courts to provide assistance with limited face-to-face interaction. Prior to reopening the courts, a team of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and Spanish interpreters created a set of new forms, in both English and Spanish, to help residents involved in easy-to-address cases, such as driving without a valid license, Lord said.

The system isn’t foolproof. As the courts continue to reopen and adapt based on the constantly changing state of the pandemic, the law community expects that the collaboration and creative problem solving that have brought them this far will remain vital.

“There are definite struggles, but everybody is kind of finding ways to at least produce the best system we can in a very challenging environment,” Lord said.