BOSTON – Courthouses shuttered. Thousands of trials on hold. Legal deadlines pushed.
The coronavirus pandemic has crippled the U.S. legal system, creating constitutional dilemmas as the accused miss their days in court. The public health crisis could build a legal backlog that overwhelms courts across the country, leaving some defendants behind bars longer, and forcing prosecutors to decide which cases to pursue and which to let slide.
“Everybody is scrambling. Nobody really knows how to handle this,” said Claudia Lagos, a criminal defense attorney in Boston.
Judges from California to Maine have postponed trials and nearly all in-person hearings to keep crowds from packing courthouses. Trials that were underway — like the high-profile case against multimillionaire real estate heir Robert Durst — have been halted. Some chief judges have suspended grand juries, rendering new indictments impossible. Other have allowed them to sit, though six feet apart.
Prosecutors may have to abandon some low-level cases to keep people from flooding into the legal system.
Many judges are holding hearings by phone or video chat to keep all cases from grinding to a halt. Other courts are stymied by outdated technology. The clerk for the the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Molly Dwyer, likened the logistical challenges to “building the bike as we ride it.”
Judges have asked for emergency powers to delay trials longer than the law generally allows and extend key deadlines, like when a defendant must initially appear in court.
That could keep people locked up longer, exposing them to unsafe jail conditions, and violate their constitutional right to a speedy trial, defense lawyers say.