PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — As Florida courts work to move cases through in a backlogged system due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an administrative order was announced on Thursday to help address the issue.
The measure allows for some criminal jury trials through video-calling platforms like Zoom, and the courts are calling it “a major historical shift in state court proceedings.”
“The vision is that the jurors would serve while sitting at home,” explained 14th Judicial Circuit Court Chief Judge Christopher Patterson. He said while the measure is meant to help the overwhelmed court system during the pandemic, he’s unsure of how successful and well-received it will be.
“It remains to be seen how popular it’s going to be,” he said. “I do think it’s going to be a significant moment in Bay County history if we do one.”
On March 13th, 2020, Florida Chief Justice Charles Canady suspended jury trials state-wide in order to protect participants and the public from COVID-19 transmission. The new approved order allows certain criminal jury trials to be held over Zoom while court facilities are closed to the public, as long as all parties involved agree to it.
Patterson said while it’s been done for civil proceedings, it may be more difficult for criminal court if jurors are dealing with distractions at home.
“That’s a challenge in and of itself to make sure that people are paying full attention and not doing independent research or talking about the case to somebody else,” he said.
Local criminal defense attorneys like Rusty Shepard agreed.
“When we are in criminal court, somebody’s liberty interest is at stake,” he said. “If you take someone’s attention away from evidence that they should be paying attention to, you’re really shortchanging a defendant and you’re shortchanging the entire system really.”
Both said they think Zoom juries could lend themselves well to smaller criminal proceedings, and agree that video-calling has proven to be a useful tool for the courts to work under the constraints of the pandemic.
“We’re able to get a lot more done due to the technology,” Shepard said. “I hope that that’s not going to go away.”
Patterson said if and when a criminal jury trial is conducted via video conference in Bay County, they’ll be ready to go with the technology needed to make it happen as smoothly as possible.