Most courtroom proceedings in county courthouses across North Carolina have been on hold since March due to the coronavirus, but something approaching normalcy returned on June 1 under orders issued May 21 by Chief Justice Cheri Beasley.
Beasley’s orders allowed Superior and District court sessions to resume, but included restrictions to prevent crowded courtrooms and encourage social distancing. She also urged continued use of video conferencing for hearings as much as possible to limit in-person appearances.
She postponed all jury trials at least through the end of July. The last jury trial in the Wilkes County Courthouse was a criminal case in September, said Wilkes Clerk of Superior Court Regina Billings.
Beasley directed that senior resident Superior Court judges be (or designate someone to be) coordinators of COVID-19 task forces for developing additional public health-related directives for in-person court proceedings in their respective judicial districts.
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Michael D. Duncan of Wilkesboro is COVID-19 task force coordinator for his 23rd Judicial District counties of Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany and Yadkin.
Duncan and Chief District Court Judge David V. Byrd of Wilkesboro issued more orders on May 28 and 29 to implement Beasley’s orders, including that people entering courthouses “may be subject to a temperature check, limited medical screening and other procedures.” The Wilkes Sheriff’s Office is checking temperatures of people entering the Wilkes courthouse with a no contact thermal body thermometer.
The orders said people entering courthouses are strongly urged to wear face masks. Judicial personnel assigned to courtrooms for over 30 minutes will be provided face masks and efforts will be made to provide face masks for those without them. Billings estimated that about half of the people coming to the courthouse have them.
People in courtrooms must sit or stand at least 6 feet apart on Xs marked with tape. Billings said Duncan examined all courtrooms in the 23rd District for this process. Judges can allow exceptions for people in the same households.
Hand sanitizer must be at courthouse entry/exit points, all public areas must be cleaned daily and high touch areas must be cleaned periodically throughout each day.
Duncan and Byrd said court is open and the public is invited to attend, but maximum public seating in each courtroom must be identified. Bailiffs are responsible for ensuring compliance. Once maximum capacity is reached, no one else will be allowed in a courtroom until people exit. If available, another courtroom will be used for staging people with cases on the calendar.
The orders said that when courtrooms, staging courtrooms and waiting areas are full, people will be asked to sign and leave a cell phone number or other contact information on a sheet and wait in vehicles in the courthouse parking lot.
Billings said that due to challenges with this procedure the first week of June, Duncan ordered that limits be set on cases scheduled each week to avoid this being necessary.
Defendants with an attorney of record are excused from appearing at calendar calls at least through July. To avoid cases being continued after defendants show up in court, no case will be continued unless the attorney notifies the opposing party at least 48 hours in advance or unless pressing circumstances exist.
Court clerks, judges and district attorney staff must work together when scheduling cases for court to avoid having people sit or stand in close proximity for extended periods.
Attorneys and others should submit court filings by mail as much as possible, with extra times allowed for it to arrive.
Only one person taken into custody from a courtroom is allowed per holding cell.
Pens will be provided to defendants for signing affidavits or waivers. Once a pen has been used it must be placed in a separate box/basket and sanitized before reuse.
No case should be scheduled for a court date unless it is reasonably likely to be addressed. No case should be put on a court calendar if it’s not ready for disposition unless it’s a first appearance, bond motion, rejection of plea on the record, advisement of right to an attorney or similar matter.
Defense attorneys and district attorney office staff must communicate on cases needing to be on the calendar and those needing to be continued. They also must communicate to resolve cases before court is held.
The district attorney’s office will prepare a schedule for when attorneys appear in court. The DA’s office must provide a list of inmates needed in advance of court.
When a plea offer hasn’t been made in a felony case at least 48 hours in advance of court, the defendant doesn’t have to appear unless the defendant hasn’t had a first appearance, needs to be advised of right to counsel, bond motions or similar matters.
Defense attorneys must make every effort to respond to the district attorney’s office inquiries/plea offers within a reasonable time before court. Defense attorneys must communicate plea offers with clients in a timely fashion and go over plea transcripts with them before their time in court.
Any defense attorney or prosecutor not present at the allotted time to handle a case without just cause may be held in contempt of court.
No Superior Court was held in the Wilkes courthouse the first week of June, only civil cases were heard this week and another session isn’t scheduled until the week starting July 20. A variety of misdemeanor and felony criminal cases, as well as infractions, were heard in Wilkes District Court cases last week and this week.
Billings said she believes the backlog of Wilkes court cases will be erased by the end of August, partly because law enforcement officers intentionally didn’t produce as many charges during the pandemic.
She said her staff was divided into two teams of 10 and 11 people and the two teams are working at the courthouse on alternating days to help prevent having a large percentage of them get sick and then impair court functions.