Jury Trials Resume In Florida, But Not Without Challenges
Jury trials resumed in Florida courts on October 19th after a six-month hiatus due to concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though many court functions have been held virtually since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the spring, trials of defendants who requested a jury halted and began stacking up. Since the cessation of jury trials, an estimated 180 cases have languished in limbo due to missing that crucial element.
The resumption of jury trials did not come without many changes, however. Prospective jurors will undergo temperature checks, be required to wear facemasks covering their noses and mouths, and be bound to observe social distancing in the courthouse. Due to the fact that jury boxes are typically not large enough to accommodate appropriate social distancing measures, chairs have been added to courtrooms to allow for proper separation by jurors.
Logistical changes have been made as well. Rather than the entirety of a jury pool arriving at the courthouse at the same time, smaller groups will be instructed to arrive at staggered time intervals. The jury auditorium will be cleaned completely after a group of jurors leaves it as well.
Attorneys involved in jury trials have also been given new rules for operation in courtrooms as well. Instead of approaching the bench when a sidebar is requested, counselors for both parties have been given a headset through which they may communicate with the judge without having to come up to the bench.
Though no cases of coronavirus have yet been discovered among jurors, some counties that restarted jury trials earlier this month have already ended them. For the second time this year Escambia and Santa Rosa counties put jury trials on hiatus, this time due to an order by the Florida Supreme Court. Cases in those counties spiked in recent days, surpassing a point at which justices found acceptable. The suspension was for a period of two weeks, at the end of which the court will examine COVID-19 cases in the area again and render a judgment.
All of Florida’s county courts are subject to the guidelines for operation laid down by the Supreme Court, which includes the necessity for several people to be in the enclosed courtroom at the same time to ensure for safety and orderly operation. Its guidelines for safe operation during the coronavirus pandemic do not include specific numbers as they are dependent on the county’s population and the nature of COVID-19 infections in it. The chief judge of each circuit is tasked with monitoring coronavirus numbers for his or her circuit, which are supplied by the Office of State Court Administration.
Jury trials are scheduled to resume in Orange and Osceola counties this month as well. Prospective jurors were scheduled to arrive for voir dire on October 23 in Orange County, while potential jurors are asked to come in for jury selection in Osceola County on November 2. A grand jury in session in the area began working again on October 22 after jurors in that body who were unable to serve due to coronavirus-related reasons were replaced by other available jurors.