The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread disruption of criminal courts throughout Pennsylvania. Judicial emergency orders resulted in the closing of most Pennsylvania county criminal courts from March 2020 through June 2020. Many neighboring states have yet to reopen their criminal courts.
Fewer Criminal Hearings
During the court-ordered lockdown, most courts held limited hearings, including bail proceedings, bench warrant hearings, probation violation agreements, and negotiated plea bargains in criminal matters. To prevent the possible spread of the virus, criminal defendants were required to appear in court through video conferencing from the county prison.
Criminal Case Backlog
To date, the COVID-19 court lockdowns have created a backlog of thousands of criminal trials. The courts are struggling to balance the health and safety of court employees, defendants, and the public with the constitutional protections to which persons accused of a crime are entitled. Regrettably, the constitutional rights of the accused are being compromised in the name of public safety.
COVID-19 Bail Reductions
Unfortunately, county jails and state prisons can be ideal settings for the transmission of the COVID-19 virus. The continual admission and release of prisoners makes the detection of COVID-19 positive individuals more difficult. Additionally, social distancing and other COVID-19 safety protocols are difficult to practice due to the prison housing unit’s structure and density.
Additionally, a high percentage of incarcerated inmates have pre-existing chronic health conditions making them susceptible to becoming infected with the COVID-19 virus. Therefore, you should make every effort to obtain release on bail for your family member, partner or other close acquaintance if they are currently in jail.
Medical Conditions Placing Prisoners at Risk for COVID-19
• Older Age
• Lung Problems
• Heart Disease
• Blood Disorders
• Kidney or Liver Disease
• Any other Medical Condition Causing a Weakened Immune System
When to Petition for a COVID-19 Bail Reduction
Individuals charged with low-level criminal, minor probation or parole violations or persons with medical conditions making them susceptible to COVID-19 infection are more likely to obtain release on bail due to COVID-19. You must contact an experienced bail reduction attorney if a family member or friend is incarcerated and unable to post bail during the COVID-19 crisis.
Preliminary Hearings During COVID-19
Many District Courts in Pennsylvania are discouraging in-person preliminary hearings due to concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Instead, many district courts are requiring the participants to use video conferencing platforms for the preliminary hearings. Bucks County and Montgomery County Pennsylvania District Courts have instituted this policy.
For a person accused of a crime, the preliminary hearing is a critical stage in the criminal court process. During a preliminary hearing, the district attorney must present sufficient evidence to satisfy the district court judge that the criminal charges should proceed to the next hearing in the court of common pleas.
Importantly, the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure prohibit the use of video conferencing for a preliminary hearing in a criminal case unless the accused consents to its use. In almost all cases, a criminal defendant should choose to be physically present at the preliminary hearing.
Disadvantages of Conducting a Preliminary Hearing by Video
• Makes it difficult for the lawyer and client to communicate
• Makes it difficult to assess the credibility and demeanor of a witness
• Makes it almost impossible to use exhibits during the hearing
• Makes it difficult to hear the judge and witnesses
• The hearing is often plagued by technical difficulties
The Delay in the Right to a Speedy Criminal Trial
Both the United States Constitution and the Pennsylvania State Constitution guarantee the right to a speedy trial to individuals charged with a crime. Under Pennsylvania law, at criminal trial must begin within 365 days of the filing of the charges. For individuals in pretrial incarceration, the criminal trial must commence within 180 days of the filing of the criminal complaint.
Unfortunately, in most criminal courts throughout Pennsylvania, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the suspension of the accused’s right to a speedy trial as part of the emergency judicial orders issued by the President Judge in most Pennsylvania counties.
Justice Delayed is Justice Denied
The judicial suspension of the right to a speedy trial creates delays that prejudice many criminal defendants, including many innocent individuals. It is critical to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney to help you successfully navigate the criminal justice system during the COVID-19 emergency.
COVID-19’s Effect on Plea Bargains
In most Pennsylvania counties, state and local prosecutors will consider the COVID-19 virus during plea negotiations with criminal defense lawyers. The prosecutors have been give this discretion because of several factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Local county jails face overcrowding due to increased arrests, prison overcrowding, and the backlog of incarcerated inmates awaiting trial. The moratorium on criminal jury trials in many counties during the COVID-19 crisis has made it easier to negotiate a more favorable plea bargain in many difficult criminal cases.
Jury Selection During COVID-19
The ability to select a fair and impartial jury is one of the most essential parts of the criminal trial process. Unfortunately, the proximity between lawyers, the accused, sheriffs, and court staff makes the jury selection process difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some Pennsylvania courts have tried to address the public health concerns by conducting the jury selection process though vide conferencing. Other courts have chosen to transfer the jury selection process out of the courthouse and into larger buildings.
Criminal Trials During COVID-19
Conducting a criminal trial during the coronavirus outbreak presents many challenges for judges, court staff, security, jurors, lawyers, and criminal defendants. The Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure guarantee the accused’s right to be physically present at every stage of a criminal trial. Regrettably, many Pennsylvania criminal courts have temporarily suspended criminal jury trials due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak. The resumption of jury trials will depend on a sustained decrease in COVID-19 positive test rates in each county.
Criminal Non-Jury Trials Begin to Re-Start
Unlike the court-ordered suspension of criminal jury trials, most Pennsylvania criminal courts have begun re-scheduling and conducting non-jury trials. Most Pennsylvania criminal courts are taking specific safety precautions during non-jury trials, including the wearing of masks, frequent hand sanitizing, the placement of plexiglass dividers throughout the courtroom, the use of disinfectant on courtroom surfaces, and social distancing.
Bucks County and Montgomery County Non-Jury Trials
The Bucks County Criminal Court has resumed non-jury trials in the Bucks County Justice Center subject to COVID-19 safety protocols. However, the Montgomery County Criminal Court has chosen to resume criminal non-jury trials in a courtroom inside the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. A skilled criminal defense attorney will adapt to the new COVID-19 protocols and procedures to ensure the protection of your rights.
Start with a Strong Defense
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant changes to the criminal justice process in Bucks County, Montgomery County, and the surrounding counties. Now, more than ever, it is essential to have an experienced criminal lawyer on your side. Phone lines are open 24 hours a day at (215) 752-5282. Contact me for a free initial consultation or fill out the confidential contact form for an immediate response.