Reassessing the viral spread of COVID-19, South Florida federal courts took the unprecedented step of waiving in-person appearances by criminal defendants with their consent.
The sweeping order issued Saturday by U.S. District Chief Judge K. Michael Moore in Miami covered the criminal pipeline from initial appearances to sentencing, offering video or phone appearances as an option.
Until now, the hearings where defendants would normally be present to meet constitutional requirements where being conducted, but civil and criminal trials had been suspended.
Moore decided the order would last 90 days with room for an extension. A previous order suspending trials lasts only until April 27. Grand jury proceedings were an exception to court cutbacks until Thursday when Moore also put off grand jury operations until April 27.
Miami criminal defense attorney Joel Hirschhorn, who wrapped up the last criminal trial Tuesday before virus-related restrictions took effect in the Southern District of Florida, called the order “ smart, well-written and intended.”
Defense attorney and former federal prosecutor David Weinstein of Hinshaw & Culbertson in Coral Gables said, “Overall, this shows the continued progressive nature of the federal courts and Chief Judge Moore to embrace technology to prevent the district courts from coming to a complete standstill.”
Weinstein noted trials were excluded from the order “as the constitutional issues in those proceedings are voluminous and most likely difficult to resolve.” Removal hearings, the federal equivalent of extradition, is “one area that will present difficulty” because they often involve witnesses from outside the area.
Miami criminal defense attorney Dennis Kainen of Weisberg Kainen Mark, a former president of the Federal Bar Association’s South Florida chapter, said, “Undoubtedly, there are due process compromises with this order but with the unprecedented reality, I think it is well-crafted.” He suggested revisiting pretrial detention orders, saying, “The court should consider that the threat of the virus is more pronounced in close quarters such as the Federal Detention Center.”
Moore said he was acting based on the findings of the U.S. Judicial Conference under the CARES Act, the wide-ranging relief package signed Friday by President Donald Trump. As of Sunday, the conference’s website on the coronavirus pandemic was last updated Thursday to note criminal trials were suspended in Seattle.
South Florida federal courts pulled back to remote operations and in-person appearances only for essential hearings under Moore’s first pandemic order March 18.
Starting Monday, U.S. bankruptcy courts in South Florida are closed to in-person visits indefinitely.
State courts acted earlier to scale back operations, but the restrictions are set to expire April 17.
In Miami-Dade, courts have issued alerts about four people infected with the virus who worked in courthouses.
On Friday, an alert was issued for people who may have been exposed to a sick worker in Hialeah Courthouse Rooms 202 and 203 on March 9, the North Dade Justice Center Rooms 215 and 216 on March 16 and the Coral Gables Courthouse Rooms 105 and 108 on March 17.
Previous advisories covered the coronavirus contracted by two jail guards who worked in Courtrooms 2-7, 3-2 and 7-2 from March 16-19 and another court employee who worked in Circuit Judge William Altfield’s Courtroom 6-2 at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building on March 10 and 11.
Visitors were advised to watch for the development of a fever, cough or difficulty breathing for two weeks.
Miami-Dade courts cut back to only emergency and constitutionally mandated proceedings March 17, and most clerks are working remotely.
Broward Circuit Court closed its courthouses March 16, which shuttered the clerk’s offices since they operate in the courthouses.
Palm Beach Circuit Court is open only for essential operations.
As of Monday morning, Florida had 5,473 coronavirus cases including 1,608 in Miami-Dade County, 1,129 in Broward County and 407 in Palm Beach County. A total of 63 people died.
The U.S. death toll passed 2,000 over the weekend, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN on Sunday that deaths could rise to 100,000 to 200,000.
Read the order: