Courts on limited schedule; arrests still being made
Published 9:34 am Thursday, April 2, 2020
While many of life’s activities and plans have come to a halt, crime has not, and the court system continues to navigate the ever-changing landscape of a nation in a pandemic.
Under a March 13 order by Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, emergency directives are in place to help keep court personnel and defendants healthy, as courts remain open but most cases are being continued for at least 30 days.
District Court Judge Mary Covington said there is a judge at the courthouse every day to hear cases and preside over probable cause hearings and other court matters. Most of that is being done either by video or with a minimal amount of personnel present.
Most cases are being continued unless they involve emergency non-secured custody orders, juvenile secured custody hearings, first appearances for defendants in custody, and 50B orders, to preserve the right to due process.
“My biggest concern is parents getting 50-Bs against them (domestic violence protective order) and being kept from their children,” Covington said. “We are taking each case as it comes up specific to those individuals.”
The biggest change in the court system is that no orders for arrest are being issued for a defendant who does not show up for their court date. Once the courts are back working full time, she said, those folks would be arrested.
Under Beasley’s order, anyone who may have been exposed to the virus is not allowed to enter the courthouse.
Ellen Drechsler, Davie clerk of court, said those wanting to conduct business in the courthouse should call before they enter the building, as some information can be provided over the phone. Phone numbers for the clerk’s office and probation officers are posted on the door, and other information is provided at www.nccourts.org.
Defendants should have received information from their attorney or in the mail advising them of new court dates, and traffic tickets may be paid online. New filings, estate accountings, and inventories can be filed by mail. Individual estate appointments are not being scheduled at this time, she said. Fingerprinting and gun permits are being conducted behind the courthouse in the old detention center and people do not need to enter the courthouse to access that location.
If a case must be heard in the courtroom, no one is allowed in except the defendant and court personnel, and the recommended six-feet distancing rule is in effect.
“Everything is moving at a very slow pace at this point but if we can do a bond hearing or hear a plea and get an inmate moved on to DOC (NC Department of Correction) or wherever, we have to do that. The court system is one big, fat Petri dish anyway, and I suspect there could be an order coming that will halt all court proceedings, but that wouldn’t be fair to the inmates or people with domestic violence cases. It would also be an utter violation of the Constitution. But this is all new to us and we are all moving and growing each day,” said Covington.
Sheriff J.D. Hartman said magistrates are looking at cases as they arise to determine if the person is eligible for pre-trial release, so they would not have to be in jail awaiting a court date.
Under Beasley’s order, weddings, which may be officiated by a magistrate, are supposed to proceed as normal, but that is not the case here, as magistrates are not doing weddings, according to Drechsler. She said magistrates are not keeping normal office hours but are instead on call. Those were decisions made by Judge Wayne Michael, the chief district court judge for this district.
For those inmates whose cases have not yet been heard, just because they are being forced to shelter in place does not mean they are immune to possibly contracting the coronavirus. Hartman said there are about 45 inmates being housed at the detention center, the lowest number in the past four or five years. For the health of all there, anyone who goes into the building must have their temperature taken first, and medical staff is available to anyone who feels sick. If any inmate does feel ill, there is a section in the center that has been cleared to isolate them. Hartman said no one is allowed inside except staff and attorneys.
Hartman said “normal” crimes are staying about the same but domestic violence crimes have increased.