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What Happens If Your Criminal Case Is Suspended Because of a Pandemic?

Person in jail is stressed about waiting while an officer looks on
By Jaclyn Rainey on April 23, 2020 7:22 AM

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads each day, many courtrooms are closing their doors to the public and postponing criminal cases. This is a situation that our country has not seen since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, so many legal professionals and courts are making emergency plans as they go.

During this time, it is very likely your case will face delays somewhere along the criminal justice process.

What Parts of Criminal Cases Are Courts Suspending?

Many courts across the United States are suspending elements to criminal cases, including:

  • Jury selection
  • Jury duty
  • Jury trials
  • New criminal trials
  • Court hearings
  • Oral arguments
  • Non-employees entering the building
  • In-person interviews

The Justice Department has also asked for chief judges to detain people without trial. In emergency situations, this power would let them keep a person in jail indefinitely until the case could proceed as usual.

Find your district court to see what measures they are taking.

What Does This Mean for My Criminal Case?

This might mean that you have to remain in prison or jail until your trial or appeal can take place. If you are on probation, then you will likely stay on probation. If you are out on bail and awaiting your trial to start, then the trial may be postponed. You will need to remain in the area on bail.

Criminal matters may be adjourned (stopped until later notice) if the person is not already in custody. If the person is in custody, some courts are using video calls to keep the process moving.

What Does This Mean in the Long Run?

Unfortunately, closing some courts may push criminal cases back from weeks to years. This has further legal repercussions because the Sixth Amendment promises citizens a “speedy" and fair trial.

The federal Speedy Trial Act and your state's laws determine what this timeframe is. There are also laws in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure stating that you should not face “unnecessary delay."

Some people can waive their right to a speedy trial. The advantages of this are:

  • To give your side more time to develop the case or find evidence
  • To get more time for an appeal
  • To have more time before serious charges go to a jury

Your attorney may advise you to take advantage of the delays. When the courts resume cases, you can choose to “waive time" and allow the case to move at a slower pace.

Defenses to Delayed Cases

If your case is delayed, your attorney may have new defenses to use, such as due process arguments.

However, as states catch up to the pandemic and change their criminal process rules, these defenses could be taken away.

What Should I Do If My Criminal Case Is Postponed?

Your attorney or local court should notify you right away if your case is on hold. They should give you detailed instructions about what to do. Since we do not know when the pandemic will end, it will be difficult for most courts to estimate when trials will resume.

Awaiting trial for weeks in jail is frightening. The situation is full of unknowns, and your rights could be at stake.

Your attorney can help answer questions. If you do not already have an attorney for a criminal case, then it is more important than ever to find one. You have rights even during times of national distress – and those rights need to be protected.

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