In-person court grinds to a halt in Bay Area counties with surging COVID-19 cases

In-person court hearings and jury trials are back on hold in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The decisions were announced Tuesday after steep increases in new COVID-19 cases and the rising percentage of people testing positive.

Since the pandemic began, court business has been anything but normal. Jury trials were suspended statewide in March, while most other hearings transitioned to a virtual courtroom with the dockets moving forward.

By the end of October, jurors were welcomed back in our area with strict precautions requiring temperature screening, social distancing and face coverings.

However, with COVID-19 cases surging, trials are going back on hold.

"It’s been the practice of the United States that people have a right to a speedy trial, if you’re in jail you get to trial quickly, but that’s been waived because of the nature of this pandemic," explained criminal defense attorney Patrick Leduc.

Florida Supreme Court rules require a chief judge to reevaluate operational plans when the county’s positivity rate jumps above 10%.

Jury trials were suspended in Pasco County in early December. The same decision made in Pinellas County effective Tuesday.

In Hillsborough County, any jury trials currently underway can conclude, but come Monday, all in-person court proceedings will be remote or on pause.

"You can do everything virtually is the way I see it, there isn’t anything that can’t be done virtually, with the exception of a trial by jury," Leduc said.

The legal system cannot function without them. Hundreds of cases are already backlogged from the last suspension, keeping plaintiffs waiting for justice and defendants sitting behind bars for their delayed day in court.

"I had a criminal defendant who was set for trial on April 2nd, he was in jail, he had been in jail since August of 2019, so he had been in jail 8 months," said Leduc. "We worked the case, were gonna pick a jury, and then March comes and everything’s shut down, and that poor guy, that poor guy is still in jail."

Right now, trials in Hillsborough County are tentatively set to resume in March but with no end date in Pinellas and Pasco Counties, it all depends on when coronavirus case numbers go down.

"I can’t imagine how difficult it is right now to be a State Attorney or a public defender whose caseloads have got to be enormous because they just can’t get cases moved," Leduc said.