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Pinellas County Court Updates

The courts are acting swiftly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems there is a new announcement almost daily by either the Florida Supreme Court, the Sixth Circuit Chief Judge, or the Florida Bar. These are certainly unprecedented times. The legal profession has been deemed an essential business under the Pinellas County Safer at Home Ordinance. The courts are also open in Pinellas County, but conducting very few in person hearings. I have had almost daily telephonic hearings to date. A silver lining among all of the mayhem is that the judges have been very generous. Every motion that I have filed has been granted. Most judges on the criminal bench are making huge concessions to resolve cases and keep people out of jail. So, everyone is pitching in to help out during this crisis. This article is intended to provide clarity and updates on some of the most recent orders that may affect your court case in Pinellas County.

No Bond Administrative Order for Violating Quarantine/Isolation Order

On March 27, 2020, Sixth Circuit Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino issued Administrative Order 2020-009. This Order mandates that anyone arrested for a violation of a State quarantine or isolation order may be held on no bond in the Pinellas County jail. (or Pasco jail if the offense occurred there.) This no bond mandate is the same as in a domestic violence case. A defendant must be held until they see a judge who then can decide what, if any, bond to permit. This bond decision would be made at the first appearance, or advisory hearing, which is required to be done within 24 hours. It is important to note that this no bond order does not apply to violations of the Pinellas County Safer at Home rules. The no bond order applies to violations of Florida Statute § 381.00315 that make it a misdemeanor to violate a State public health order. Since the State has not issued a mandatory quarantine or isolation order over our area, this statute appears to be merely anticipatory. However, if a person is known to have COVID-19 or been exposed to it and has had a specific order to be quarantined or isolated, then the Order may be applicable.

Supreme Court Order Suspending Jury Trials

The Supreme Court has continued to delay jury trials. In Administrative Order 2020-17, it extended the suspension of jury trials through April 17, 2020. This is a necessary order but will have serious implications once our world returns to normal. I have seen first hand how difficult the jury process was before the first order was entered. The day before the first order was entered, I was scheduled to have a jury trial. My case was continued in favor of another older case. It was a bizarre scene at the courthouse with very few people there and several people wearing masks and gloves. In any event, the defendant that went to trial that day was stuck with a jury pool that did not want to be there. The answers to the lawyer’s questions during voir dire were so negative and nasty that the defendant took a plea deal right after the jury was picked! He knew that he was going to be found guilty because the jurors were on edge and didn’t want to be there. But, the suspension of jury trials is going to have profound impacts on our legal system. While it would be great if cases could settle, there isn’t much going on with cases. So, they are just delayed and will create a massive backlog in cases eventually. It appears that virtually every case in Pinellas County is going to be delayed or affected in some manner in the months or even years to come.

Supreme Court Order Giving Certain Judges Statewide Authority

The Supreme Court is clearly anticipating that criminal defendants are going to be locked in place for the foreseeable future. In anticipation for defendants who are being held in a county other than the county where their charges arose, the Supreme Court issued Administrative Order 2020-92 on March 26, 2020. This order appointed three of our local judges, Judge Paul Levine, Judge Joe Bulone and Judge Shawn Crane, to have statewide authority. This means that any defendants that are being held in Pinellas or Pasco jail for a case that originated from another county are permitted to be handled by these judges just like they were local cases. Normally, a defendant would have to be transported back to the county where the charge originated. Likewise, if a defendant is being held in another county on a Pinellas charge, the Order allows other judges to handle and dispose of their cases. This measure clearly anticipates that the Supreme Court wants judges to thin out the jails and signals that it is going to be a long time before things get back to normal.

Contact Battaglia, Ross, Dicus & McQuaid, P.A.

Our office is still open in St. Petersburg and we are practicing strict social distancing for those who come to the office. We are one of the few businesses in the area still operating at full function. Some of our staff are working from home, but our office is still functioning to service our clients’ legal needs. We are encouraging telephone/video appointments rather than in person consultations at this time. We are also encouraging our clients to send us emails or text pictures of documents rather than dropping them off. Our office hours have not changed although the front desk is only being manned from 9AM-4PM. If you have a legal need in St. Petersburg, we encourage you to contact us via email or by telephone immediately. Please be safe and I hope this article was helpful to address the ongoing changes in the legal field throughout this challenging time.

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