The Law and COVID-19

Nova Clark

(Graphic: Nova Clark / The Ebbtide)

Crime in the U.S. has been significantly reduced, but continues to persist in the face of COVID-19.

Two New England businessmen were arrested for committing fraud in relation to small business loans. In Texas, a salon owner was jailed for reopening her business amid laws that prohibited her from doing so. A California security guard sustained injuries while attempting to enforce a rule about face masks.

While felonies grace the headlines, the processes that follow arrest must adapt to the pandemic as well.

Court Procedure

Before the outbreak, Seattle-based Attorney Carol Hepburn began her day in a full office with her paralegal, other lawyers and clerks. Now, she only makes the commute a couple of days per week. The building doors are locked and entry requires special permission.

According to Hepburn, the biggest change brought on by the pandemic is the lack of face-to-face interaction. Courts now hold hearings by telephone; a practice which — once optional — is now mandated.

“I don’t know of any court that’s holding in-person hearings,” she said.

Similarly, depositions are now frequently conducted by way of video conferencing services such as Zoom. In the past, such a measure would only be taken if travel needs or distance burdened the parties involved.

Additionally, jury trials must be postponed until it becomes safe to host jurors again — a type of delay which can sometimes prove fatal.

“Some of us feel that justice delayed is justice denied,” Hepburn said. “People can die waiting for their outcomes.”

Hepburn anticipates that courts will tentatively return to in-person hearings, with social distancing implemented for juries and deliberation rooms. But older courthouses — as well as ones currently being built — didn’t have social distancing in mind.

In the meantime, Hepburn explains, courts are dealing with the pandemic in terms of delay while following the governor’s guidelines.

Prison Life

“We’re also seeing a lot of requests for compassionate release from prison early due to COVID,” Hepburn said.

Nationwide, thousands of prisoners have been released through those requests as coronavirus works its way into the prison system.

However, prison guards are considered essential workers and not all inmates are granted early release. In order to limit the spread of the virus within correctional facilities, Washington state has made changes.

On March 2, the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) opened its Emergency Operations Center in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a DOC spokesperson, inmates have made a number of adjustments to their usual activities. The DOC implemented social distancing protocols in all facilities, encouraging people to keep six feet apart when possible.

“The social distancing measures included reducing the number of individuals coming to meals and allowing only one or two individuals per table, having incarcerated individuals use every other phone, and staggering the number of individuals out to recreation, pill line and other services,” the DOC spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement to The Ebbtide.

In compliance with guidelines set forth by the Department of Health, the DOC suspended all visitation, tours and events involving four or more outside guests. The institution also implemented a reduction of aerosol-prone dental services as well as the temporary closure of weight decks.

“The department will continue to make changes to operations based on guidance for prevention, mitigation, and response to COVID-19 from the Department of Health and Center for Disease Control,” the DOC spokesperson said.