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New Mexico’s Supreme Court issued an order Tuesday suspending criminal jury trials through the end of April and encouraging judges to, when possible, conduct court hearings via phone and video.
The order comes amid requests from prosecutors and defense attorneys asking justices to do more to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the state’s jails and courtrooms. And attorneys on both sides say the new measures do not go far enough.
Tuesday’s order adds to a set of precautions the court implemented Thursday, which restricted the number of people who can gather in any room in a court to no more than 25, and suspended work-related out-of-state travel for all employees and all civil jury trials. The new order makes clear that courts will remain open and there will not be blanket cancellations of case types or proceedings that have not already been authorized.
“The precautionary measures imposed by the Judiciary today will provide additional safeguards for all New Mexicans, while allowing necessary court functions to continue,” Chief Justice Judith K. Nakamura said in a news release Tuesday. “Especially during a public health emergency, courts must not close because they deliver vital services required in our justice system to ensure community safety.”
Additionally, the order requires that all visitors be asked screening questions before they are allowed into a courthouse. It also lets local courts accept more filings by email and fax and allows chief judges to let some employees work from home.
Criminal trials will be permitted if there is an exceptional circumstance, according to a news release issued by the Administrative Office of the Courts. The suspension does not apply to trials already underway.
Judges also now have the discretion to hold phone and video hearings and to continue hearings when appropriate. In situations where rules require a defendant’s presence at a hearing, the defendant is allowed to attend via video if the judge allows it and as long as the defendant has a chance to speak to his or her attorney confidentially.
“Courts play a critical role in our society, ensuring compliance with the rule of law,” Nakamura said. This includes hearing the initial pleas of those arrested and charged with crimes, making constitutionally required decisions on the pretrial detention of defendants and issuing restraining orders to protect victims of domestic violence.”
Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez said in a statement that he appreciates the suspension of criminal trials but does not believe the new order goes far enough. He disagrees with the court’s decision to continue allowing nonessential hearings and to let individual judges determine whether phone or video appearances are acceptable.
“Under this order, far too many people – including victims, court staff, police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants and members of the public – will continue to move in and out of New Mexico’s courtrooms at a time when courts from California to Florida are taking more dramatic steps to protect the public from unnecessary risk,” Torrez said.
His own list of requests, sent Monday, proposed the postponement of all hearings for defendants who are not in custody and suggested that courts conduct only constitutionally required hearings for people who are in jail. He also proposed suspending certain deadlines in Bernalillo County, saying complying with them in light of the crisis will be difficult.
Defense lawyers have called for discussions on the release of inmates in custody for nonviolent offenses and a suspension of arrests for nonviolent offenses, failure to pay fines, and technical release and probation violations.
At least one other jurisdiction has instituted similar measures.
Officials in Los Angeles County have taken steps to reduce daily arrest numbers, as well as jail populations, during the crisis, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday.
Richard Pugh, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said he believes the realities of the virus will soon render the latest order unworkable unless the number of criminal cases moving through the system is reduced.
“It is imperative for the safety of all involved that we minimize the number of people in custody, and take steps to protect inmates, detention staff and court personnel from infecting each other in crowded courtrooms across the state,” Pugh said in a statement Tuesday.