Criminal proceedings are beginning to reopen Florida’s courtroom doors a little wider, with more counties across the state summoning jurors and holding in-person trials, more than five months after COVID-19 emptied the state’s jury boxes.
This week, courts in the panhandle's First Judicial Circuit are scheduled to resume in-person jury selection and criminal trials, with all four counties in the circuit due to resume in-person criminal proceedings between now and early October, according to an article in the Pensacola News Journal.
This First Circuit's scheduled return to in-person trials comes about three weeks after Flagler County jurors, in the Eighth Circuit, convicted a defendant of stealing an SUV, according to a Daytona Beach News-Journal story. That trial is believed to be Florida's first fully in-person trial since a state supreme court order in March suspended jury trials due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And earlier this month, a Leon County court, in the state’s Second Judicial Circuit, seated a grand jury for a criminal trial. According to a report on the Florida Courts website, voir dire was conducted across seven courtrooms in the county’s courthouse, to allow for social distancing.
The return to in-person trials comes as more circuits move deep into phase 2 of the state’s four-phase plan for reopening courts. Jurisdictions move through each phase based on covid levels relative to population size and other case-specific data, rather than any hard-and-fast numbers.
According to the state’s supreme court order, phase 2 authorizes limited “in-person contact… for certain purposes and/or requires use of protective measures.” That language allows circuits some discretion on how to resume and restrict proceedings.
However, the in-person proceedings are raising new issues, with attorneys arguing over which cases should be tried first and the bounds of mask-wearing in court during those trials. According to Pensacola station WEAR, State Attorney Bill Eddins believes the first wave of trials will be the simplest criminal cases, with the most complex criminal cases, such as homicide trials, perhaps waiting another year.
Meanwhile, the Pensacola News Journal quotes Public Defender Bruce Miller as believing that cases should be tried based on how long they have been on hold, while adding that masking jurors, witnesses, and the defendant could raise an array of constitutional concerns.
Still, while criminal trials are resuming in greater numbers across Florida, civil trial activity has been limited to proceedings under the state’s remote jury trial pilot program. That project authorized five circuits to explore ways remote technology can be used to conduct jury trials. In July, the 11th Circuit held a hybrid trial, with remote jury selection before jurors assembled at the courthouse for an in-person, one-day trial. The following month, the Fourth Circuit held a fully remote proceeding that included two days of voir dire and a one-day trial, leading to a $354,000 verdict. That proceeding is believed to be the nation's first fully remote civil jury trial to reach a verdict.
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.