COVID-19 pandemic bogs down court system

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the wheels of justice and extended the length of jury duty. Pioneer photo by Jaci Conrad Pearson

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DEADWOOD — Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the wheels of justice continue to turn in Lawrence County. They’re just going a bit slower than usual.

With defendants’ bond amounts lower than usual, longer than normal adjudication timeframes, suspension of the speedy trial act, and even an extended year-long service stint for seven current jury panels, those committing crimes will still have their day in court. It just may be later rather than sooner.

“The biggest difference is that, a lot of these people, when they’re supposed to appear in circuit court, are appearing through their lawyer by affidavit,” said Lawrence County State’s Attorney John Fitzgerald. “That was never allowed, prior to this pandemic, on felonies and then, the case is then being continued down the road. It’s not uncommon to get a continuance of a case for two months.”

Fitzgerald said that while court is still being held four days a week – magistrate court on Monday and Wednesday, circuit court on Tuesday and Thursday, and grand jury every other Wednesday, the process has definitely been slowed by the pandemic and that more continuances are being requested and granted.

“I think that in the late summer or early fall, when things get more back to normal, there will be an awful lot of cases that will need to be disposed of,” Fitzgerald said. “What I mean by that, is that there will have to be trials set and some conclusion reached on these cases that have to be continued.”

Fitzgerald said that before the pandemic a case might be continued for a couple of weeks.

“Now, you could get it continued for a couple months,” he said.

That said, Fitzgerald emphasized that anyone who thinks they can get away without facing the consequences for their behavior is mistaken.”

Fitzgerald said that the 180-day rule has been suspended.

“The 180-day rule means that from when you first appear in court, the case should be disposed of by plea or trial within 180 days – six months. It’s their speedy trial right. That’s been suspended. Somebody who says, ‘I want to have my trial within six months of my first appearance in court is not going to get their case dismissed because the speedy trial act has been violated. That’s been suspended by the South Dakota Supreme Court.”  

As an example, the man accused of crimes that led to the April 10 officer-involved shooting in Whitewood, Jaris Roy Kroetch, has yet to make his initial appearance. This has led to the delay by Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg releasing the report about the shooting. Typically this is done within 30 days of the incident.

Fitzgerald said that while criminal cases mirror 2019 numbers, other fall-out in the courts from COVID-19 measures include a moratorium on jury trials, an increase in “bond jumping,” and a decrease in bond amounts.  

“The court has issued an order. This is the presiding judge from this circuit, that there will be no jury trials for the month of May through the 24th of June,” Fitzgerald said, adding that bond amounts are definitely more lenient than normal and people are getting out on bond quicker and easier, with less money to post.

“But that’s just being realistic about the situation that we have,” he said.

Comparing case loads for this same time last year, Fitzgerald said that as of May 20, 2019, Lawrence County had filed 435 Class I misdemeanor and felony cases.

“As of today, May 20, 2020, we filed 447 Class I misdemeanor and felony cases, so it’s a slight increase over last year.”

“We’re having more people fail to appear … I think that there’s been an increase in the amount of people who have skipped out on bond,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ve gotten out and they just have not come back. On top of that, I think the bonds are low for a lot of these crimes because they want to try to maintain a jail where there is not a constant influx of people that have the virus.”

Fitzgerald said that so far, grand jury was impacted one time, when the state was unable to gather enough people to conduct the proceedings.

“We have to have six and we weren’t able to get that many together,” he said.

Fitzgerald said that most of the cases are being continued.

“Meaning, there are a lot of cases that are just continued until sometime in July,” he said. “So, at some point, we’re going to have a lot of cases that we’re going to have to deal with. Right now, they’re just being continued until, hopefully, things change.”

By order of the South Dakota Supreme Court, lawyers are being allowed to appear with an affidavit from their client.

“Making court appearance by lawyer,” Fitzgerald said. “Typically, on felonies, the client is supposed to appear in person. Now they have changed the rules temporarily.”

Fitzgerald confirmed the fact that jurors who were called for the January-June 2020 six-month traditional time period have had their jury duties extended through December, in effect, serving for one year, also as part of the Supreme Court order.

“And that also applies to grand jurors,” he said. “Grand jurors had, for all the time I can recall in Lawrence County, only served for six-month terms. Now they’ve been extended for a year. It’s the same with those jury trial panels. They’ve always been six months and now they’re a year. It’s completely related to that (COVID-19 pandemic). It’s never happened before.”

The extended jury duty affects five jury trial panels, consisting of an average of 70 members per panel, as well as two grand jury panels, consisting of 10 members each.

The Supreme Court has issued orders allowing presiding judges in the different circuits to set different policies.

“They’ve got some different policies in our circuit, which is the fourth … that is these changes will stay in effect until they determine that there is no need or no emergency still existent,” Fitzgerald said. “So, it could go on for awhile.”

Fitzgerald said that the pandemic process of being charged with a crime is still very similar to pre-COVID-19 measures.

“We have to have a presentment of that formal charge to a grand jury,” he said. “It must occur within 15 days if that person is remaining within custody. If they’re out on bond, we have 45 days to get the grand jury to meet and to present that case to them to have them determine there’s probable cause.”

When does Fitzgerald think the court system may be back to some semblance of normal?

“I’m going to say, to some semblance of normal, July,” he said. “Right back to where it was? That might not be until September. That’s just a guess.”

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