While the Dubuque County Courthouse has reopened and in-person court proceedings have resumed, local court officials anticipate working for months to address the backlog of cases created by closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In-person court proceedings were postponed until last week, and jury trials pushed out until Sept. 14.
The result has led to a wave of backlogged cases. Some defendants have sat in the Dubuque County Jail for one year or more awaiting trial, and many of them likely will not have their day in court until January at the earliest.
“I have multiple clients who have been in jail for over a year,” said local public defender Steve Drahozal. “These are people who have not been convicted of crimes. … They’re sitting on bond.”
Defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial if they demand one. If demanded, under normal circumstances, a person charged with an indictable crime in Iowa must be brought to trial within 90 days after the trial information or indictment is filed.
However, health officials have warned that crowded courtrooms could be venues to spread the virus. That prompted the Iowa Supreme Court to pronounce good cause in issuing a statewide suspension of speedy-trial rights in criminal cases.
If trial information or an indictment was filed in mid-2019, defendants might now have a speedy-trial deadline of January or June of 2021, Drahozal said.
Iowa District Court Judge Thomas Bitter said “speedy-trial rights are taken extremely seriously, and we will do everything possible to ensure that all defendants in Dubuque County are brought to trial within the adjusted limitations set out by the Supreme Court.”
As of mid-June, the local Public Defender’s Office had 27 clients in jail awaiting a criminal jury trial, according to Dubuque County court officials.
As courts reopen, criminal trials will be scheduled ahead of civil trials as the system works through the backlog, with preference given to those in custody with a speedy-trial demand, according to court officials.
County Attorney C.J. May III did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
Preparing for trial ‘huge challenge’
Even with trials set to resume, preparing for trial — including conducting depositions and tracking down witnesses during the pandemic — remains a “huge challenge,” Drahozal said.
“Right now, the biggest challenge is making sure our clients’ rights are protected ... and investigating these cases because there are risks associated with talking to them in person,” he said. “And clients have financial difficulties and don’t have stable cellphone numbers. And they often don’t have access, or limited access, to email, so it’s difficult.”
In Dubuque County, efforts to prevent the highly contagious virus from wreaking havoc inside a densely packed jail spurred criminal justice officials to release more inmates who do not pose a risk to the public.
Some inmates have been released with GPS monitoring and placed on pretrial supervision.
“We’ve been lucky to reduce our (jail) numbers significantly, but this backlog with jury trials has reached a point where there’s not much we can do in terms of reducing the inmate population more than we already have until they start to resume jury trials,” said Sheriff Joe Kennedy.
Meanwhile, courtrooms and court proceedings will look much different, including fewer people gathered in hallways outside courtrooms. Everyone inside the courthouse is required to wear a mask or face shield.
“If you come to the courthouse and refuse to wear a mask, our people will ask you to leave,” Kennedy said. “And that will be the final word.”
There also will be longer breaks between court proceedings, and fewer people will be allowed in the courtrooms at one time to ensure sufficient space for social distancing.
Witnesses testifying will be allowed to wear a clear face shield instead of a mask, Bitter said via email.
“This allows the witness to speak more clearly so everyone can hear, it allows the court reporter to more accurately report the testimony, and it allows the judge to watch the witness’s face so that credibility can better be assessed,” he wrote.
Drahozal, who is diabetic and at high risk of severe illness from the coronavirus, questions the ability to safely resume jury trials, particularly as infections increase locally and across the state.
“We have a limited number of courtrooms and judges,” he said. “I don’t know how we’ll be able to spread jurors out like we need to keep people safe.”
Drahozal also questions what happens in the likely event someone during trial develops COVID-19 symptoms.
“Do I have to quarantine for 14 days?” he asked. “If we have to postpone a trial … how does that impact that person’s speedy-trial deadline? How are we not locking people up indefinitely for things they haven’t been convicted of?”
Drahozal stressed he is not advocating for keeping courtrooms closed.
“Because without resolution, there’s no justice,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer is. Again, there’s a lot more questions than answers.”
The State of Iowa is hoping to have a “pilot” jury trial in the next month that should, hopefully, “shed some light on the challenges we face and ways to handle things safely,” Bitter wrote.