Unprecedented changes driven by the coronavirus pandemic are causing judges, attorneys and defendants to grapple with balancing a public health crisis and defendants’ rights in Miami-Dade County’s criminal court system.
On Thursday last week, Chief Judge Bertila Soto ordered the postponement of all nonemergency court proceedings without in-person appearances, except emergency and mission-critical court matters, until April 17. Almost all hearings are now conducted by phone and video conferences.
For criminal defense attorney Dennis Gonzalez Jr. working remotely has some advantages, but is not as effective as being in the courtroom. He said the State Attorney’s Office uses a service called LifeSize, where a judge calls cases and about 20 prosecutors and defense attorneys wait their turn.
“I have never seen anything like [this virus],” Gonzalez said. “It’s just something that we have to work around. And we’ve been able to work around most of these situations.”
Defense attorney Mycki Ratzan said the fact court appearances are being delayed for an unknown amount of time adds a high level of stress to her clients.
“It’s probably going to take a couple of months to return to normalcy,” she said. “For them, they’re not going to be seeing us or their families so that level of isolation that already exists from being in custody adds to the discomfort.”
In an effort to limit exposure to the coronavirus, prosecutors have set up video kiosks at the State Attorney’s Office and the Juvenile Assessment Center to record interviews with victims, witnesses and police officers. Teleconferences are also being utilized for those that have paperwork like a subpoena and can give a deposition. It is possible this option will continue in the future because it makes the process simpler.
“It has given us the opportunity to explore new possibilities to make the criminal justice system more accessible to the public,” spokeswoman Lissette Valdes-Valle said.
And Juan Diasgranados, spokesman for the Miami-Dade Corrections & Rehabilitation Department, said in a statement that there is an increase of individuals being released to pre-trial services or house arrest due to virus concerns.
He added that no one in jail or custody has tested positive for COVID-19. If a newly arrested person is suspected of having contracted the virus, he said the person would be sent to a local hospital and not accepted in the facility. Housing for the quarantine of inmates is available if necessary.
Employees, however, have not been as fortunate. On March 17, a worker at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building tested positive for COVID-19 and three employees from the Dade County Corrections and Rehabilitation tested positive last Tuesday.
Despite this, attorneys say they feel everything is working — as best as it can, anyhow.
“I feel pretty confident that justice is going to move forward,” Ratzan said. “I think everyone is trying their best to maintain the integrity of our system.”