El Paso and Teller counties are postponing new trials and preparing to clear their dockets of all but “essential” matters through the end of March, the Pikes Peak Region’s top judge said Monday.
Details of the move were still being worked out, but the goal is to cut down on crowds in hopes of controlling the spread of COVID-19, a virus that has sickened 160 people in Colorado, killing one person in El Paso County.
“We’re trying to reduce the number of people coming to court. We’re looking at vacating all sorts of court hearings,” said 4th Judicial District Chief Judge William Bain, who oversees the combined courts in both counties.
The move came after new direction from the Colorado Supreme Court. Chief Justice Nathan B. Coats issued an order Monday putting a halt to most new jury trials and prescribing reduced operations for courts in all 22 judicial districts in the state.
Coats’ order — which remains in effect through April 3 — excludes new trials relating to “imminent speedy trial deadlines.” It’s unclear if that applies to any of the trials scheduled to begin this month in El Paso and Teller counties.
“We can no longer continue with normal business operations, but in the interest of all Coloradans we are also unable to cease operating entirely,” Coats said in a statement announcing the changes.
Those unsure about whether to appear in court are directed to contact their attorney or the clerk of court at their courthouse.
People with jury summonses for March should call their local jury commissioner’s office. Informational numbers are generally printed on summonses.
Under the order, Colorado’s state and county courts will continue to hear petitions for civil protection orders; advisements and bail-settings for incarcerated defendants; probation-revocation hearings; detention hearings for juveniles; mental health proceedings; and other matters necessary to protect the rights of the accused.
The changes come after a series of trial postponements in El Paso County.
All 15 jury trials previously scheduled to begin Monday were postponed, including a first-degree murder case. The defendant, William Camacho Jr., is set to get a new trial date on Monday.
People with flu-like symptoms or known exposure to the coronavirus are asked to stay away from the courthouses in Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek and instead request a postponement as soon as possible. That also applies to people on probation, who should contact their probation officers by phone.
Joshua Tolini, president of the local chapter of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, said juries are notorious for spreading illness, owing to long hours spent in close quarters.
“I can’t tell you how many homicide trials I’ve had where one person gets sick and two days later the rest get sick,” he said.
The flood of last-minute changes is likely to tangle court dockets, observers say.
“I think the biggest problem you’re going to run into is the sheer volume of requests,” attorney Phil Dubois said. “Court clerks are going to be bombarded by phone calls and emails and motions to make special arrangements.”
Dubois downplayed concerns over speedy-trial deadlines. The state law mandating that defendants receive a trial within six months of being arraigned also carries a provision allowing judges to extend the deadline for extraordinary reasons. The national battle against the novel coronavirus is likely to meet that criteria, he said.
Coats’ order was supported by the El Paso County Bar Association.
“We are pleased that the Supreme Court has taken action to reduce state court operations across Colorado in the interest of public health and safety,” executive director Kristi Dorr Gilkes said. “The COVID-19 pandemic is spreading exponentially and we must all act swiftly to reduce its spread in our community.”
Other attorneys complained that being forced to carry on with normal duties left them vulnerable to disease. Some have informally said they are halting in-person visits to clients.
The changes in court come amid widening closures in Colorado, including Gov. Jared Polis’ order shuttering large gathering spaces including theaters, gyms and casinos for the next 30 days. Bars and restaurants are limited to takeout, delivery and room service only during that period.
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