For years, people have been buying food and doing their banking at drive-up windows.
But in Sunnyside, they can use a drive-up window to take care of their business with the municipal court as part of efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep the wheels of justice turning.
At the Sunnyside Municipal Court, people appear at a window on the side of the building that houses the court, police department and jail, and talk to a judge and attorneys through a tablet computer while passing court documents to clerks through the window’s sliding drawer.
“It creates a sense of normalcy,” said Vanessa Engquist, the court’s administrator. “It encourages people to maintain contact with the court.”
One attorney said it also allows people to get on with their lives sooner after resolving issues before the court, ranging from traffic citations to misdemeanor charges.
In March, the state Supreme Court issued an order suspending civil and criminal jury trials in keeping with Gov. Jay Inslee’s order for people to stay home unless going to work at essential jobs or tasks such as picking up groceries or medication. Court business was limited to the bare essentials, such as conducting preliminary appearance hearings for people in custody and issuing no-contact orders.
By the end of May, the high court eased some of the rules, allowing courts to conduct select business through remote means, such as videoconferencing software, although jury trials remain suspended.
Yakima County Superior Court has been conducting video court hearings, with attorneys and parties appearing via videoconferencing software and the proceedings livestreamed on YouTube for the public.
Yakima Municipal Court, likewise, is conducting proceedings electronically, with masks required for those who have to actually come to the court.
In Sunnyside, the court was in a building that had a drive-up window, which makes it easier to conduct court and maintain safety, particularly at a facility where a coronavirus outbreak saw 11 police department employees and one inmate test positive for the virus.
When the court decided to reopen June 2, there was a backlog of 800 cases, Engquist said. Court staff have notified those people that their cases have since been rescheduled.
When people come for court, they line up outside under pop-up shelters — while maintaining social distance — where court staff can assist them. When their cases are called, they go to the window, where the judge and attorneys appear on a tablet screen, and a clerk sits inside the window to process papers.
Engquist said the arrangement has worked well. On arraignments, about 70% of defendants show up for their scheduled hearings.
“We weren’t expecting that many people to respond,” Engquist said.
Rick Hernandez, a local attorney, said he likes the way it is working, and so do his clients. He said waiting outside for a case to be called is safer than sitting in a crowded courtroom.
While he has used the videoconference option before, Hernandez appears personally with some of his clients at the Sunnyside court.
“I don’t have that many cases there, so I prefer the hands-on approach,” Hernandez said.
There are still no full trials yet, but Hernandez said the arrangement does help alleviate some of the court’s backlog. He said it is also good for his clients, who can have more certainty with their legal cases than if the court were not accommodating them during the pandemic.
“They are having court every week, and the cases are getting processed,” Hernandez said.