PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The criminal justice system in Oregon is enacting sweeping changes temporarily to combat the spread of novel coronavirus. That includes individual sheriff’s offices attempting to curb the possibility of an outbreak of the virus in jails and restrictions on in-person court proceedings.
A Chief Justice Order issued Monday directed individual courtrooms and courthouses to enact restrictions on in-person court trials, hearings and court operations until at least March 27, reflecting other national trends as other states launch responses to curb COVID-19’s spread.
‘The nature of this public health emergency has led me to order the postponement of most trials and court hearings,” Chief Justice Martha Walter said in a statement.
Limited exceptions for the order include “proceedings involving people in jail with a legal right to a speedy trial, civil commitment hearings, and certain protective order, family law, guardianship, and treatment court proceedings.”
In addition, the restriction bans in-state and out-of-state travel for work and lets judges decide which staff can work remotely.
How each county enacts these new restrictions may look different from one area to the next, however.
“The Chief Justice Order gives some directives but retains some flexibility in the individual courts to meet local and case-specific needs,” Oregon Judicial Department spokesperson Phillip Lemman told KOIN 6 News via email Thursday.
Bottom line: most in-person trials and hearings will not happen, with few exceptions, and other hearings can continue if they can be done remotely.
“Any in-person court proceedings that occur need to happen w/ social distancing — including when jurors are summoned,” he added.
In addition to the new restrictions in court, many county sheriffs’ offices are also taking measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19, according to a statement from Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association (OSSA) Thursday.
“We are working with our local law enforcement partners, the courts, district attorney’s offices and public defenders to implement changes to the entire criminal justice system which will help us manage this crisis,” a press release by OSSA stated.
This effort has involved holding conference calls with various organizations as a way for sheriffs to “discuss plans and share information,” OSSA President Jason Myers told KOIN 6 News.
This will include compliance on the county level of the Chief Justice order for restricting in-person court activity, and taking directives or recommendations from state agencies such as Oregon Health Authority, the Governor’s Office, Oregon Department of Corrections and emergency management agencies to ensure that law enforcement has the most current information and are implementing the latest recommended changes, OSSA said.
In addition, the sheriffs’ offices will work to carefully evaluate who gets booked into jail facilities in order to limit intake and get low-risk offenders out of jail as soon as possible, along with environmental precautions, social distancing, and screening of individuals being taken into custody.
“Obviously a jail is a confined space…we do not want to have an exposure in our jails,” Myers said.
Specifically how these measures are being enacted can vary from county to county, he added.
Most public service counters and phone lines have been shut down for Multnomah County Circuit Court, according to a press release.
In addition, jurors who were summoned on March 20 need not report to the court.
All civil level jury trials are being postponed to be held after April 30 and all landlord-tenant hearings and trials through March 27 will be rescheduled to be held after March 30.
Small claims hearings and trials through April 13 will also be rescheduled to be held after April 30.
The court will continue to hold many in-custody hearings in person, though trial assignment and short matters dockets will now be conducted via phone for the purpose of setting new call and trial dates.
The court will also conduct many family law court matters in person, with some exceptions, and only a few juvenile court matters in person.
In-person closures are also in effect for most matters pertaining to probate, records, traffic, parking, and payments and collections.
For Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, measures are being taken to allow more discretion for officers to reduce the strain on the criminal justice system.
That includes allowing deputies to issue a citation requiring a person to appear in court at a later date, when appropriate, and doesn’t apply to more serious offenses, like violent crimes.
Enhanced measures to screen for COVID-19 will also be enacted in jails.
Clackamas County Wednesday took the step of closing most of its public buildings until at least April 6.
Courts and law enforcement remain open on a limited basis. Its health clinics will remain open, as well as many other services via online.
“Clackamas County remains open for business and we are doing that by going virtual,” Clackamas County spokesperson Dylan Blaylock told KOIN 6 News.
In the courts, civil and criminal jury trials scheduled to begin before March 27 will be postponed until after April 30, 2020.
Jury trials for defendants who are in custody on felony charges that provide them with a statutory or constitutional right to a jury will still occur, however, according to a statement from Clackamas County Circuit Court.
First appearances are to also be postponed until after April 30.
Some exceptions to the court activity postponements are in place, such as in-custody arraignments, civil commitment hearings, some juvenile and family proceedings, among others.
In addition, staffing levels in the court will be minimum.
Clackamas County criminal justice system leaders are also exploring whether to include use of cite-in-lieu of arrest where appropriate to keep jail populations at a minimum.
Washington County Sheriff’s Office is currently suspending jail social visits and jail job shadow and patrol activities. In addition, the Criminal Records lobby is closed.
According to Washington County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Danny DiPietro, the law enforcement agency has enacted a temporary jail operation plan. This includes making sure all Washington County Jail staff are equipped with personal protective equipment–such as a face shield, gloves, and gown–when dealing with any adults in custody who are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
Also, staffers are conducting brief COVID-19 and flu assessments during intake and if an inmate’s answers are indicative of the virus, a jail nurse would be called in to make further assessments.
In addition, arrested persons will now have their temperatures checked prior to entry and may not be admitted if they have an abnormally high fever and/or cough.
The jail has also directed partnering agencies to consider utilizing cite-and-release for potential inmates if they exhibit COVID-19 symptoms — such as shortness of breath, fever and cough — instead of admitting them to a Washington County jail.
Cleaning within the jail is also being increased to protect against COVID-19.
On the court side, Washington County stated on the state court website it would be postponing many trials and hearings and that the court’s hours open to the public would be reduced.