In October 11, the San Diego County Superior Court did something it hasn’t done in over half a year. It admitted jurors through its doors. Of the 800 prospective jurors who were summoned, only 41 people showed up. That’s a far cry from the typical 400 jurors who typically report in a given day, but nothing related to the legal system has been operating the same since the coronavirus pandemic shutdown started in Mid-March. Here’s what you should know about this big step forward.
Are Jurors Safe? Do I Have to Report Even if I Don’t Feel Safe?
Courts are doing everything possible to keep jurors safe. This includes sanitizing the entire courtroom every morning, only allowing in persons essential to the trial, social distancing whenever possible, mandatory mask rules and the installation of panels to separate jurors, judges, attorneys and court staff one one another. All of this means the threat is particularly low, but just like anywhere that people from different households get together, there is still some risk, especially for those who are particularly at risk for the virus.
Failure to report to jury duty is technically a crime, although it is rarely enforced. While courts may be more likely to bring up contempt of court charges those who ignore their jury summons when juror turnout is so low, they’re highly unlikely to do so in the middle of a pandemic and a related recession. That being said, it’s still best to return your jury summons with a valid excuse for not serving, which currently includes being exposed to Covid-19 or having Covid-19.
That being said, having a fair, unbiased jury is a cornerstone of the American court system, so it is still important that people report for jury duty as long as it does not present a threat to someone’s health or livelihood.
Does This Mean the Courts Will Finally Reopen ?
Maybe. Other counties in California have already fully opened their courts, but San Diego is just now starting to operate jury trials again. In fact, only one jury trial is being held at a time for right now and only in the central San Diego Courthouse. If things go well, it’s likely that the courts in Chula Vista, El Cajon and Vista will follow suit.
Unfortunately, the county’s courts have a massive backlog of cases and it’s critical that they open again to move forward. With so few jurors reporting at once though, even if the courts start to hold more trials at a time, the backlog will still be a problem for the foreseeable future. Normally, this could be considered a violation of a person’s right to a speedy trial, but there are exceptions for emergencies such as the pandemic.
What Does This Mean for Those Facing Charges?
With a backlog of thousands of cases, the San Diego Superior Court has received a temporary reprieve to delay trials. Unless the California Supreme Court grants continued trial delays, the local courts will be forced to dismiss potentially thousands of cases in 2021 if not settled. It is important for defense lawyers to understand this and demand fair settlements for their clients.
For many, a plea bargain is the best option to consider during this slowdown, but for those who wish to fight the charges altogether and need to win over 12 peers, a trial is often the only option. And that means waiting, possibly for months and months.
It’s worth adding that judges are continuing jury trials over defense attorneys’ objections, taking judicial notice of how unsafe it is for jurors to serve, especially minorities (black and brown people have much higher rates of Covid-19 than whites), and thereby potentially skewing the jury pool against defendants. The irony is that minorities also have disproportionately higher rates of incarceration. So, judges are postponing the trials of back and brown people in jail and keeping them in jail while claiming to be concerned about their rights.
If you have any questions about the courts and the coronavirus, please call Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free consultation.