Delaware courts face challenge to move wheels of justice

WILMINGTON — The wheels of justice can turn slowly, but never more than now.

With courts closed through May 14, some trials – judge only or by jury – are idle, others involve uncertain launch dates due to COVID-19.

Justice is still being served via electronic filings and video court conferences, all with the aim of mandatory of social distancing.

Nearly all of DOJ’s more than 500 employees work remotely through a virtual private network, video conference and phone.

“I wouldn’t say that there has been one particular operational challenge — we are fortunate that we have been able to continue operations almost seamlessly, but this has a dramatic effect on every aspect of our daily work,” Attorney General Kathy Jennings said.

“Going remote essentially overnight is like turning an aircraft carrier around — not just on our own behalf but in coordination with all of the state agencies that we serve — and doing it alongside everything else that comes with implementing and enforcing a State of Emergency.

“On an individual basis, we are all having to adapt, including restructuring our communications with one another to compensate for the fact that we can’t walk into each other’s offices to ask what would normally be simple questions.”

DOJ employees who are, for any reason, unable to work at all are receiving paid emergency leave.

According to Chief Defender Brendan O’Neill of the Office of Defense Services, “It’s the temporary new normal. We hope it’s not the long-term new normal.”

The 210-member Public Defender’s office works under the same distant conditions and keeps skeleton crews in its three New Castle County offices and one office each in Kent and Sussex counties.

Mr. O’Neill described the court system transition as “very transparent” and including regular morning conferences and meetings with court and DOJ representatives, Probation and Parole, law enforcement partners, the Department of Correction and the Department of Technology & Information.

There’s an extra focus on detention cases, with pleas by appointment, sentencings, bail hearings, arraignments and reviews designed to assure standard incarceration procedures.

Family Court emergencies must be addressed for all involved parties since, as Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. said, “It’s such an important part of their lives.”

Speedy trial rights

Due to the state of emergency, speedy trial rights issues are pending based on the chief justice’s emergency closure mandate.

According to Mr. O’Neill, the ODS “is dedicated to providing high-quality defense representation, which by its very nature includes the protection of our clients’ rights. This is the ODS guiding principle at all times and even more so during a pandemic.

“I know times are difficult and that there is much uncertainty as we navigate this public health crisis, but our clients still have rights. As the crisis around COVID-19 continues, we have to recognize the rights of the accused. This includes their right to a speedy trial.”

An elongated trial time during what’s clearly a stressful time for society during a process that “even under normal circumstances our clients face tremendous risk such as a loss of wages, stable work and the destabilization of the family unit as they await trial dates.” Mr. O’Neill said.

“The fact that this is all occurring during a public health crisis, with increased risk to those who are incarcerated, is even more concerning.”

Speedy trial motions haven’t been filed yet, Mr. O’Neill said, but “I have advised our attorneys to consider filing (them) when necessary.

“We have also been filing bail modification motions to try and get our clients back home where they can hopefully retain employment and prevent further destabilization. These efforts to modify bail began quickly after Gov. Carney’s first executive order and the State of Emergency in mid-March.”

DOJ spokesman Mat Marshall said “We’re clearly on unprecedented terrain,” when it comes to potential speedy trial issues.

“But we’re confident that we are on solid ground — if the court received a speedy trial complaint, it would trigger an analysis, including a determination as to whether prosecutors caused the delay,” he said.

“In this scenario, they haven’t.”

Challenges await

Cases not constituting a threat to public safety are creating a backlog to eventually schedule, and Chief Justice Seitz described it as “a challenge that we’re working on.”

Prosecutors and defense lawyers, the Department of Correction, court staff and law enforcement officers have teamed up to move the system forward as best as possible.

The DOJ’s Criminal Division, Family Division, and Division of Civil Rights & Public Trust continue to intake and process new arrests, though formal indictments aren’t issued with no grand juries currently impaneled, Mr. Marshal said.

Consumers have contacted the Fraud Division’s rapid response team more than 100 times regarding price gouging issues along with its regular functions.

The DOJ’s Civil Division “hasn’t skipped a beat and, if anything, is busier than ever since it provides legal counsel to every state agency in uniquely demanding time,” Mr. Marshall said. “Civil has been in constant coordination with the Office of the Governor on ever-shifting ground throughout this crisis, on top of helping every state agency adapt to completely new norms and keep the people of this state safe.

“Civil has literally been helping to keep the state running.”

The 24-hour Justice of the Peace Court locations in each county (Court 11 in Wilmington, Court 7 in Dover and Court 3 in Georgetown) remain open for payment of bail for all courts between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. and for emergency criminal and civil filings for the Justice of the Peace Court. Courthouses closed to the public are using drop boxes for attorneys and the public without access to e-filing who must to file paper documents.

“The Delaware Judiciary, along with the Department of Public Health, the Delaware Emergency Management Agency and our system partners, continue to monitor the situation and hope to resume court operations as soon as it is safe and practical,” Chief Justice Seitz announced last week while extending the closures.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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