Cecil courts COVID-19 restrictions

In March, a sign on the front entrance of the Cecil County District Courthouse in Elkton notifies the public of restricted functions due COVID-19. A new statewide order issued on Tuesday extended “restricted emergency operations” at all Maryland courthouses, including the two in Cecil County, through June 5.

ELKTON — The Cecil County Circuit Courthouse and the Cecil County District Courthouse are now closed to the general public — with limited exceptions — until June 5, marking the second extension of the original COVID-19 “restricted emergency operations” order issued on March 16, according to a statewide directive signed by Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Mary Ellen Barbera late Tuesday.

In a companion order, Barbera also gave a written directive encouraging court officials in Cecil County and throughout Maryland “to identify at-risk incarcerated persons for potential release to protect the health of at-risk incarcerated persons during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.”

Barbera emphasized that decisions to release identified at-risk inmates in jails and prisons should be made with “careful regard for the safety of victims and communities in general, with respect for the statutory rights of victims and with due consideration given to public health concerns related to inmates who may have contracted COVID-19.”

In other words, court officials will consider the seriousness of the crimes a convicted inmate committed or a pre-trial inmate is accused of committing, particularly as it relates to violent offenses, against the potential health impact.

That directive lists numerous other considerations in making a decision to release at-risk pre-trial inmates held on bond or granting modifications of sentence for at-risk convicted inmates serving their terms — including “whether the defendant suffers from a pre-existing condition that renders the defendant more vulnerable to COVID-19; whether the defendant displays COVID-19 symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19; and whether the facility in which the defendant is detained is able to address related medical issues.”

If an at-risk inmate is considered for release, court officials also must determine if that inmate “has resources to meet basic food, housing, and health needs, including any period of quarantine that may be required and whether the defendant presents a danger to an identifiable potential victim or the community.”

Barbera already had issued a similar order relating to juvenile court respondents (known as “defendants” in adult court) and juvenile court delinquents (called “convicts” in adult court) who are held in juvenile halls.

Cecil County Circuit Court Administrator Matt Barrett told the Cecil Whig on Wednesday that Tuesday’s order to extend the state court system’s “restricted emergency operations” to June 5 does not change how business is conducted — and has been conducted — here since the first order was issued on March 16.

(The first order was effective from March 17 through April 13. A new order issued on March 25 extended “restricted emergency operations” through May 1, before Tuesday’s directive pushed it back through June 5.)

“We are trying to do as much as we can to protect our court staff and the public from the risk of exposure,” Barrett commented.

To that end, all criminal and civil jury trials and court trials that had been scheduled to occur during that specified “restricted emergency operations” time period — approximately 10 weeks — have been postponed, he reported.

(The same restriction applies to Cecil County District Court.)

“It numbers in the hundreds,” Barrett said, when asked how many trials, motions hearings, plea proceedings and other criminal matters have been postponed thus far since March 17.

To avoid “speedy trial” issues, the first “restricted emergency operations” order in mid-March “tolled or suspended” statutory and rules deadlines related to the initiation of court matters that are required to be filed in Maryland, including statutes of limitations.

In accordance with the original “restricted emergency operations” order, Cecil County Circuit Court officials suspended the summonsing of petite jurors for jury duty. Petite jurors serve on criminal court and civil court trials.

Barrett reported that — even if the courthouse reopens to full function on June 8 — jury trials likely will not start until sometime in mid-to-late July, perhaps even later.

“Even if we resume on June 8, there will be no jury trials for at least six weeks. It will allow us time to summons our jurors. It takes four weeks to get a pool of jurors,” according to Barrett, who further reported that, amid this time of uncertainty, jury officials stopped mailing summonses.

Court officials also factored in “the general public’s concern about coming into the courthouse,” even after it reopens, in the decision to wait several weeks before resuming jury trials, Barrett explained.

In addition, court officials considered the workload of prosecutors, defense lawyers, stenographers, court clerks and related employees when deciding to stall the resumption of jury trials until at least mid-summer, even if courthouses reopen on the designated June 8 date.

“There is a backlog of work and they (employees) will have to get back into their normal activities,” Barrett said.

Access to the courthouse remains restricted, as it has been since the first order on March 16, according to Barrett.

Those allowed in the courthouse are lawyers — but only ones who have scheduled courtroom business on that particular day — parties to courtroom cases scheduled to be heard that day and credentialed members of the media, but only if they are there to look up records or to observe proceedings, he listed.

Although petite jurors are not reporting to the courthouse for duty, the 23 members of the current Cecil County grand jury have continued to report for sessions at this point, Barrett reported. The grand jury, which meets in closed sessions typically held every other Wednesday, determines if criminal suspects should be indicted and, if so, on which charges, after prosecutors present their cases.

Barbera called for the suspension of grand jury activities throughout Maryland, but grand jury sessions are continuing at the Cecil County Circuit Courthouse because the written order “provides for an exception” that court officials here are using, according to Barrett.

Beyond the grand jury sessions, under the latest order — and as with the previous orders — the courthouse is “permitted to handle only emergency matters.”

The list of emergency hearings allowed under the directives includes the following:

* Bail reviews and bench warrants. Bail review hearings typically are conducted remotely via closed-circuit television, in which each defendant at the Cecil County Detention Center appears on a television screen in the courtroom, where the assigned judge presides over the proceedings.

* Arraignments for detained defendants.

* Juvenile detention hearings

* Emergency mental health petitions

* Extradition cases

* Body attachments, which are the equivalent of bench warrants, but for civil cases instead of criminal cases.

* Extreme risk protective order appeals

Meanwhile, Cecil County District Court is handling the same type of emergency matters as Cecil County Circuit Court, in addition to “new extreme risk protective order petitions, new peace order petitions, applications for statement of charges, acceptance of bail bonds and bench warrant satisfactions,” according to the directive.

Only “essential personnel” at the courthouses must report for work, according to the latest directive and the ones preceding it. The directives explain that employees in that category will be determined by “administrative judges, court administrators, clerks of courts, administrative clerks and administrative heads of units of the judiciary.”

Barrett told the Cecil Whig on Wednesday that he and Clerk of the Court Charlene Notarcola are continuing to work under a system predicated on the division of each of their staffs into three teams. One of Notarcola’s teams reports to the courthouse for work each business day, while the other two work remotely from home, and Barrett’s three teams function likewise.

Should a member of a team working in the courthouse get exposed to COVID-19 or test positive for it, all members of that squad would be sent home to self-quarantine and a second team would start working at the courthouse, Barrett said. The four at-home teams, two for Barrett and two for Notarcola, serve as backup to the present courthouse staff, he added.

“We have about 73 employees total. We have about 25 employees working in the courthouse now,” Barrett said.

Notarcola supervises employees who work in several courthouse departments, including land records, civil, criminal, business licensing and marriage licensing. Barrett also is in charge of several areas, including the courtroom assignment office, juries, family services and adult drug court.

Cecil County State’s Attorney James Dellmyer, whose office and staff are on the third floor of the Circuit Courthouse building, had established a similar team system for his personnel. The SAO has approximately 25 to 28 employees.

Although approximately two-thirds of the courthouse staffs aren’t physically in the building each day, the work is still getting done — thanks largely to the fact that courthouse employees and lawyers have access to the court’s online system, court officials reported.

Work done through the court’s online system includes filing motions and pleadings electronically. In addition, employees are functioning through emails, teleconferences and similar means.

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