Covid Court Updates: Broward County, Florida
Broward County Circuit Court Months Away from Next Phase
Broward Circuit Chief Judge Jack Tuter of the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit transitioned courthouses in his district to phase two operations in October 2020. At that time, strict compliance with coronavirus safety measures made it possible to allow limited in-person contact so long as compliance with Centers for Disease Control (CDC) protocols were possible.
At the time of his order, Jude Tuter was already looking ahead to when a transition to phase three could occur but acknowledged that would be months into the future when COVID was less of a risk to the public. The Florida Supreme Court outlined what requirements must be met to make the loosening of restrictions appropriate. Still, with recent surges in Florida virus cases, this next milestone is a ways off.
Next Transition Still Months Away
Currently, the biggest challenge faced by Broward courts is a growing backlog of criminal cases due to restrictions on in-person hearings and technology challenges. Serious cases involving crimes like murder often require an extensive jury pool, but having over a hundred people attending a jury selection hearing could easily lead to virus transmission. These hearings could also pose a risk to the inmate population held in the county jail.
The Chief Justice hopes to prevent this from occurring, saying should it happen, it would be a “nightmare situation.” In a recent interview, he also emphasized that the next transition is still months away due to current trending COVID-19 data in Broward County. On January 21st, he told The Sun-Sentinel, “We were expecting to start some reopening in January and continuing slowly as the year went on, but the numbers we’re getting are trending in the wrong direction. We don’t know exactly when things will change.”
Case Backlog Measurement Strategy Implemented
With the suspension of jury trials, Broward County courts monitor their backlog using a 750-day list that tracks inmates who have spent two years in custody. Many of these cases involve felonies and are therefore ineligible for bonds. The question remains, how will these actions go to trial during the pandemic? And with over 370 inmates currently on this list, how long will it take to catch up?
Ongoing Assessment of COVID-19 Data Affecting Broward County Courts
This decision ultimately depends on virus data and its impact on his jurisdiction. Just last week, Florida had the fourth-highest death toll in the United States, and Broward County reported 1,351 new cases alone. This brings the county total to more than 155,000 cases since the pandemic began in March 2020.
Like other Circuit Court justices, Judge Tuter conducts regular assessments of current COVID-19 data with members of his staff, state attorneys, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, and other stakeholders in the courthouse. While they’ve managed to conduct hearings remotely, it’s clear in-person hearings will be necessary at some point.
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