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Maryland courts to start opening

The John Hanson Briscoe Circuit Courthouse for St. Mary's County is located in Leonardtown.

The John Hanson Briscoe Circuit Courthouse for St. Mary’s County is located in Leonardtown.

Courts in the state will not be business as usual when they expand their operations next week.

Maryland’s district and circuit courthouses have been scheduled by the state’s judiciary to expand operations following 5 p.m. today, Friday, June 5, after the courts close for the day.

But the general public still will not be allowed to enter the courthouses next week, as has been the case since late March when the state’s top judge issued an order postponing most scheduled hearings and barring public entry into courthouses.

The St. Mary’s courthouses have only been hearing emergency matters, such as bail reviews and emergency petitions, as well as some “problem-solving” court matters like adult drug court, since that order, leaving a very bare-bones docket with only one judge on duty each day in each courthouse.

Starting next week, the courts will extend that to plea agreements with sentencing deferred, motions which can be handled without testimony, competency hearings, scheduling conferences and a few other minor matters.

Remote hearings will still be allowed and preferred, according to the order.

“All proceedings are conducted remotely whenever possible, using board approved technology,” Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Laura Ripken told the Maryland House Judiciary Committee last Thursday at a meeting discussing the reopening.

State’s attorneys may also convene grand juries starting Monday, according to the Maryland Judiciary.

The reopening is part of a five-phase plan by the state’s judiciary to return courthouses to normalcy, with the first phase of the plan being the “skeleton crew” courthouses which are currently in effect. The second phase of that plan begins Monday, and a third phase, where courthouses and their offices will reopen to the general public, is expected to begin on July 20.

When the public is allowed in, courts will likely continue their current health screening procedures.

“Screening questionnaires before entering, no-contact temperature readers, mandating the use of face masks in the courthouse” and mandatory social distancing will be a new feature of the courthouse, Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland John P. Morrissey said at that meeting.

That phase also reintroduces most matters which don’t require a large gathering of people, including cases involving witness testimony, non-jury trials and civil settlements.

The county’s administrative judges will decide how many people are allowed inside the courthouse and courtrooms at that time, according to the order.

Jury trials, which require the summoning of a large group of potential jurors, are not expected to return until the fifth and final phase on Oct. 5.

Teen court resuming virtually

According to a county government release sent Thursday, the St. Mary’s County Teen Court program, a diversionary program which handles some first-time misdemeanor offenses committed by teens, have been holding virtual sessions.

The sessions are occurring more frequently than the in-person sessions were, to speed up through a backlog of cases, coordinator Gregory Jones said in the release.

The virtual sessions have been held twice a week, rather than the normal once every two weeks.

The online platform is highly secure for confidentiality reasons, Jones said, and was selected based on platforms Arizona and Texas are using for their teen court sessions.

Twitter: @DanEntNews

Twitter: @DanEntNews

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