Nearly two weeks ago, authorities in both King and Snohomish counties have suspended all criminal jury trials for a period of time, in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in our local area. Now the rest of the state has followed suit, with jury trials for criminal matters suspended.
Superior Court Presiding Judge Bruce Weiss of Snohomish County had suspended all criminal jury trials until at least April 24. All civil jury trials are suspended for a longer period of time and are set to resume on June 1. Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers of King County ordered all jury trials to be suspended until April 24. Court personnel is set to call off any jury summons which have already been sent out.
Both judges issued these changes via emergency orders, which went out at the time President Trump declared a National Emergency due to the threat of the novel coronavirus, which began to affect the Seattle area weeks ago. At that time, Pierce County also suspended criminal jury trials but was still requiring criminal defendants are to appear in court, or a bench warrant would be issued. Snohomish County, however, was not requiring out-of-custody defendants to appear.
The following week, Washington State's Supreme Court Chief Justice Debra Stephens issued an order that mandated all criminal and civil trials be put on hold until April 24. The only exceptions to this order are emergency court hearings that involve domestic violence and sexual assault protection orders and various emergency injunctions. These hearings, while still happening, must be done by phone or video. The only hearings which would be proceeding as scheduled during this time are criminal bench trials, in which no jury is present and a judge will make a finding and issue a ruling.
In response to the state-wide order, King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers announced his court is prepping a new video system that meets that requirement which could allow non-in-custody cases to be heard. Judge Rogers stated that the system "will allow out of custody people to download an app and appear virtually in court.”
Furthermore, the court systems are taking measures to protect vulnerable individuals within the criminal justice system, who may be in custody pending a trial. Defendants who meet the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines pertaining to 'a vulnerable population' will be given priority at bail hearings, typically the first appearance after someone is arrested. According to current information from the CDC, this would include:
- Anyone aged 65 years and older
- Anyone with underlying conditions could include:
- People with chronic lung disease
- Anyone with serious heart conditions
- Anyone who is immunocompromised (including those who are undergoing cancer treatment, those who have undergone bone marrow/organ transplantation, those with immune deficiencies including poorly controlled HIV or AIDs, and those with histories of prolonged use of immune weakening medications)
- Anyone with severe obesity, and/or certain underlying ss index [BMI] >40) or certain underlying medical conditions, particularly if not well controlled, such as those with diabetes, or renal failure.
Protecting these vulnerable individuals should be a high priority across the state. The health of anyone who is incarcerated, including those in custody who have not yet been committed of any crimes, must be a high priority, given that many of those individuals may have a history of substance abuse which could place them at a higher risk. The close quarters in jail and prisons present a unique risk in the spread of disease and our state should be taking all precautions it can to keep all citizens safe and healthy.