Just as COVID-19 is wreaking havoc across the United States in terms of sickness, deaths, and lost jobs it is also wreaking havoc on the criminal justice court system. In Pennsylvania as of April 2, 2020, the courts are essentially closed down until May 1, 2020. There are some exceptions to the closure of the courts. Cases involving Protection from Abuse Petitions and Orders, certain other emergency petitions, and hearings involving people who are incarcerated are still happening just not in the way they traditionally were. Many hearings are being conducted using “advanced communication technology.” Well, what does that mean? It means video and telephone. Video and telephone communication have been used in the business sector for decades but not in the criminal justice court system. As a result, the courts are now trying to piece together systems to conduct necessary hearings. It is up to each jurisdiction to determine which systems to use and how. There is not one unified system used by the various courts, jails, or lawyers in the state. It is a hodgepodge system being set up as it goes. This makes it more difficult to communicate confidentially with your client during a hearing. It also makes it harder to cross-exam witnesses as you can’t “show” someone their prior statement or testimony or any other physical evidence.
Criminal cases are also being continued throughout the state because a lot of court proceedings are conducted in large groups where dozens or hundreds of cases are heard at one time with packed courtrooms. These hearings are rightfully being continued because lots of people in one room is very dangerous at this time. You simply can’t practice “social distancing” in a courtroom with 100 defendants, their attorney, court staff and the prosecuting attorneys. Criminal charges are stressful enough but with cases constantly being continued, the stress is building up even more due to the uncertainty of not knowing when a person is getting their day in court. One of the most concerning issues for a criminal defendant is that Rule 600 has been suspended during this declared judicial emergency. Rule 600 is the Pennsylvania speedy trial rule. The speedy trial rule dictates that a person has to be brought to trial within 365 days of being arrested. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule in “normal” times. However, this unprecedented move to create a blanket suspension of Rule 600 is unprecedented and will likely be litigated in the future. Although Rule 600 has been suspended a person’s constitutional rights to a speedy trial and to due process remain in place. How the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s suspension of Rule 600 will affect those constitutional rights is also an issue that will be litigated in the coming months.
The pandemic has pointed out many inefficiencies in the court system. Among these are the communications issues I discussed above. In addition, it has highlighted the number of counties that do not participate in the statewide electronic document filing system. Mandatory participation would eliminate the need for each county to create email addresses for filing documents to prevent in-person filings and comply with social distancing requirements. Things will constantly be changing in the next several weeks, and hopefully not months. However, this firm is and will be constantly monitoring those changes, informing our clients about them, and exposing inefficiencies and lobbying for changes in the criminal justice systems once things get back to normal.