Three days after Yakima County Superior and District Court judges imposed restrictions on court hearings to combat the COVID-19 outbreak, the State Supreme Court has issued stricter statewide rules.
“Many Washington courts have already taken important steps to protect public health while ensuring access to justice and essential court services,” Chief Justice Debra L. Stephens wrote. “However, the crisis is increasing daily and it may become necessary for courts to close, suspend in-building operations or otherwise significantly modify their operations.
Under the order issued Wednesday, all civil and criminal trials are suspended until April 24, three weeks longer than Yakima County’s order dictated. Emergency hearings will be allowed if they can be conducted telephonically or through videoconferencing, or proper distance can be maintained between people in the courtroom.
“The defense bar supported what the Supreme Court did,” said Paul Kelley, director of the county’s Department of Assigned Counsel. The department provides public defenders for people who cannot afford lawyers in criminal cases.
Stephens’ order was drafted in consultation with the Washington Association of Defense Lawyers and the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic said.
Yakima County’s Monday order, signed by the Superior Court presiding judges David Elofson and Richard Bartheld and District Court Judge Brian Sanderson, suspended all criminal and civil trials through March 31, along with diversion, trial readiness, mental health and drug court proceedings. The county’s district court suspended arraignments of defendants not held in jail, while allowing traffic cases if parties submit materials by mail or email.
Stephens’ order also limits the courts to conducting preliminary appearance hearings, arraignments for those in custody, bail hearings and plea/sentencing hearings for those in custody during the closure period.
Bail hearings will be scheduled within five days if the defendant falls into one of the groups deemed vulnerable to the virus and crime victims are able to participate in the proceeding, Stephens’ order stated.
The order also states that trial delays because of the COVID-19 situation will not count against a defendant’s right to a speedy trial.