Georgia Courts Continue COVID-19 Closures, Though Relaxations Are Under Consideration
Reduced access to courts due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues to hamper defendants’ ability to have their cases heard, but Georgia’s chief justice has hinted that he may soon modify some emergency procedures in an attempt to get cases moving again.
Chief Justice Henry Melton has on five occasions extended the Statewide Judicial Emergency issued mid-March in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The emergency order recognizes that most court proceedings require lawyers, judges, defendants and other court users to appear together in close quarters, which is difficult to do while trying to protect everyone’s health by social distancing.
The emergency order put a stop to jury trials and most grand jury proceedings. This has caused a backlog of criminal cases, which in turn has led to concerns about defendants’ constitutional right to a speedy trial and the right to confront accusers in open court.
Chief Justice Melton is authorized under state law to extend the judicial emergency in 30-day increments. When he extended the emergency on August 10, the chief justice suggested that the ban on jury trials and grand jury proceedings may need to come to an end soon.
“This broad prohibition cannot last too much longer, even if the pandemic continues, because the judicial system, and the criminal justice system, in particular, must have some capacity to resolve cases by indictment and trial,” Melton wrote. “Accordingly, the COVID-19 Task Force is focusing on how grand jury and jury trial proceedings could safely be conducted even where levels of COVID-19 are high, including the possibility of conducting grand jury proceedings and jury selections remotely.”
Court closures have impacted people charged in municipal courts as well. The municipal court in Decatur, for example, cancelled all court sessions through September 14. However, in an effort to keep local jail populations down amid the spread of COVID-19, the municipal court also ordered that people arrested for DUI, driving without a license, disorderly conduct and several other low-level offenses must be released within 48 hours of arrest, even if they cannot afford to post bond, provided they have no prior convictions.
The court-access restrictions continue to evolve and the rules are subject to frequent change. If you or a loved one is arrested during the pandemic, contact the law office of James D. Michael, P.C., right away. Our Decatur-based firm is staying on top of this issue and can advise you accordingly. Call 404-857-4059 or contact us online for a free initial consultation with our Georgia criminal defense lawyer.