Conducting court during the coronavirus

Judges say pandemic causing issues for trials

MECOSTA, OSCEOLA COUNTIES — Mecosta and Osceola county judges are trying to find a way to safely conduct jury trials as Michigan courts continue to operate remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are having difficulty determining when we are going to be able to properly conduct jury trials again, and that really matters because if someone hasn’t been able to bond out of jail or we didn’t set a bond because of factors that they were dangerous or likely to flee, it’s not appropriate for folks to sit in jail with no end in sight,” 49th Circuit Court Judge Scott Hill-Kennedy told the Pioneer.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, state of Michigan and Michigan Supreme Court, the courts in Mecosta and Osceola counties have been operating mostly remotely since March, with the majority of court proceedings taking place via Zoom, barring a few exceptions.

77th District Court Judge Peter Jaklevic said, overall, this system has been working well for the courts. However, conducting jury trials remains an issue.

“We are keeping up. All the courts are doing everything that they’ve always done,” Jaklevic said. “The only thing we can’t do is jury trials, and the reason for that is we don’t have a big enough space in the courtrooms. We have to follow the CDC guidelines for social distancing.”

Hill-Kennedy explained only a small percentage of criminal felony cases go to trial.

“What typically happens in probably 90% of criminal cases that are felonies in the circuit court, are they end up either going to a plea to some charge by the defendant or being dismissed,” he said.

Nonetheless, Hill-Kennedy said court officials have been considering all their options for conducting jury trials in the cases that require them, such as holding trials in area schools with more space, making proper social distancing possible.

Jaklevic said if a solution is found for conducting jury trials in the district and circuit courts in Mecosta and Osceola counties, they will essentially be fully operational despite most people working remotely.

“Jury trials are probably the single most important part of the criminal justice system,” he said. “ ... If we can get back jury trials and keep people safe in the process, we are really going to be going at 100%.”

Although court officials continue discussions on how to hold jury trials, Hill-Kennedy and Jaklevic said other court proceedings have been running fairly smoothly.

Hill-Kennedy said steps such as arraignments, settlement conferences and other meetings between the parties of a case, the attorneys and the judges have been able to be completed via Zoom.

He added that this has been particularly helpful for attorneys who live several hours away, as they have not had to schedule proceedings based around the time it would take them to drive to and from different courts across the state.

One issue Hill-Kennedy said they have faced though is a lack of internet in some more rural areas of the county.

“We are encountering that some of our citizens have not been able to participate due to technological limitations,” he said.

However, he said people are encouraged to go somewhere with public internet access in these instances.

Jaklevic said he has also received positive feedback from attorneys and parties who have found the Zoom conferences to be more convenient.

“I think there’s some things that are going to continue like this when this is all over,” he said.

Although some people have found the Zoom option helpful, Hill-Kennedy said defendants have the right to request certain aspects of their case be handled in person, including when they are officially sentenced in a case.

“If a defendant wants to be sentenced after entering a plea or being convicted during a jury trial — if that person wants to have the sentencing done in person in the courtroom in front of the judge — that person has the right to request that. That’s their constitutional right,” he said.

As court officials continue to find ways to uphold the justice system during the ongoing pandemic, Hill-Kennedy said he is grateful to the judges and other court staff he has been working alongside.

“I work with great colleagues, and they have been great in brainstorming, being helpful and trying to figure out ways to run our court smoothly and appropriately through all these limitations that we face because of the lockdown orders,” Hill-Kennedy said.