Distant, socially distanced justice: Potential backlogs concern some | News

TRAVERSE CITY – In the spring of 2019, three people in two vehicles were involved in a car accident in Grand Traverse County.

At the end of the day on July 26, 2019, Timmie D. Collins sued Vincent and Michael Nizzi and Auto Owners Insurance Co. in the 13th Circuit Court.

All parties in the civil proceeding retained advice, motions were filed, summons served, deposits made and documents presented.

Then Trina Girardin, deputy court administrator, said: “COVID has happened.”

A settlement conference in April 2020 was postponed to May and then postponed to June.

The state’s Supreme Court issued an administrative order on April 23, 2020 that put the Kibosh on trial in Michigan through June 22, 2020. Most states followed a similar protocol, records show.

When that first state order expired, the Michigan Supreme Court’s administrative office issued another: Trials could be held, but only with the approval of the SCAO, which required the courts to come up with an approved plan of room layouts and guidelines for scrutiny contained in courtroom infections.

“It really is up to the judge to come up with a plan,” said Grand Traverse County Attorney Noelle Moeggenberg. “And in the 13th Circuit this plan was approved.”

And the car accident was brought to justice before Judge Thomas G. Power.

He said the case started out as a relatively normal civil insurance-related process, as he has seen many times since he was first elected to the bank in 1992.

Until it wasn’t.

“This was the first personal trial in the state after the pandemic was declared,” Power said. “It was perhaps the first in the nation. If it wasn’t the first, it was pretty close. “

Rising virus cases forced another hiatus in November, December and January, Power said, and then another return to personal litigation earlier this month.

Not only are these civil proceedings, but also face-to-face trials in the three-story brick building that houses the 13th Circuit Court.

Staff and judges say they’ve gotten creative to follow masking and social distancing mandates.

For example, during the summer, the jury’s selection took place in the Central High School auditorium. And when the students went back to personal school, the trial moved to the Old Town Playhouse and a conference room in the Park Place Hotel.

Everyone in the courtroom is masked except for testifying witnesses, some jurors are in the jury box and the rest are distributed around the courtroom. Anyone wishing to follow the trial can do so on the presiding judge’s youtube channel, which will broadcast the trials live.

Moeggenberg said she has now followed several cases this way and while feeling safe about it, she admitted to making strategic adjustments.

“Trying to read juries is difficult when you can’t see someone’s face,” she said. “And I have to think about where to stand, who to face. I can’t really use a projector because people are so spread out that they couldn’t all see it. “

Power estimates that there are a handful of lawsuits waiting to be postponed, but no backlog.

Around the corner, that’s hardly the case in Robert P. Griffin’s Justice Hall. Where up to 200 legal proceedings are suspended, said Moeggenberg.

Even knowing this number, not all of them say they support having face-to-face trials during what may be the worst possible end of the pandemic.

“I don’t see the rush if we could all be in a much better place in a month or two,” said lawyer Craig Elhart. “I haven’t tried a case personally since February 2020.”

Elhart said he heard from clients who said they were concerned that their cases would be resolved, and Elhart said he was looking forward to being in the courtroom again – but not if that means the risk of exposure to that To enter virus.

“I have a murder trial in Benzie and my client has been incarcerated for most of the past year, so I understand,” Elhart said.

Neither Benzie County’s 85th District Court nor the 19th District Court justices are currently conducting face-to-face trials, court officials said.

Elhart said he thought this was the prudent way to go, especially for criminal proceedings.

“Civil proceedings are set up for a smaller jury, just five or six,” added Elhart. “In a criminal case, you could be 14 or 15. Why take the risk when this could be over by the end of May is my point.”

One reason, say judges and lawyers, could be to prevent the court record from becoming overloaded.

As soon as more people are vaccinated and of course the courts resume personal trials, the 13th Circuit Court is unlikely to have a flood of cases to try to reschedule.

At least one defense attorney who works regularly at the 86th District Court says she feels the backlog and has expressed concern about her clients.

“I have a dozen waiting to be tried,” said Attorney Cinder Conlon, who frequently accepts judicial appointments from the Michigan Indigent Defense Council. “Illegal entry, an abuse case, misreporting of an offense, and some cases of domestic violence.”

Conlon said most of the defendants in such misdemeanor cases receive PR bonds – personal recognition – which means that for those who adhere to their bond terms, there is no money out of pocket.

But the cost of forensic tests that many defendants have to pay can add up quickly while defendants wait for trial, she said.

A PBT – preliminary breath test – at New Direction Testing on Racquet Club Drive costs $ 3 each, or $ 15 a week for daily tests, and urine tests are $ 20, the website shows.

“It’s like they’re on parole, but they’re not,” Conlon said of her clients who are in custody. “They keep paying these fees, but they haven’t been found guilty of anything.”

Conlon and Paul Jarboe, coordinator of the MIDC of Grand Traverse County, said they were initially hoping for more advantageous offers of pleading from the prosecutor, although they did not always materialize.

Moeggenberg said since the pandemic, she has felt pressure from defense lawyers, defendants and sometimes even crime victims to settle cases that might otherwise bring them to court.

“There have been some that I’ve settled or fired in ways that I wouldn’t have in times without a pandemic, like a suspended license or a disturbance of the peace where someone was imprisoned and not insulted again,” she said said. “There are others I’ll hold.”

In particular, cases of domestic violence and drunk driving, she said.

By December, Moeggenberg’s office was back 180 cases; last week that number rose closer to 200, she said.

The backlog in the 86th District Court has not replenished Grand Traverse County Jail, prison administrator Capt. Chris Barsheff.

“Most of those detained here are criminals – many of the offenses are excluded,” said Barsheff.

Preliminary examinations, court hearings, probation hearings and various other legal proceedings are still planned in district and county courts, which will be carried out remotely on YouTube.

Meanwhile, Carole Stocking, the administrator of the 86th District Court, said the court’s judges and staff continue to weigh the growing backlog of cases against the risk of a jury, court clerk, attorney or defendant being exposed to the virus.

“We’re very, very careful,” Stocking said of the disruption to the personal trial. “The numbers are rising again, the spring break is coming and we might hold back a little longer. We just don’t want anyone to get sick on our watch. “

Stocking said she has had discussions with Grand Traverse County’s Department of Health and will contact them again next week for information about the risk of virus transmission.

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