EDINBURG — Hidalgo County’s judges on Monday morning voted to suspend jury panels until May 8, placing all scheduled trials on hold hours before the county declared a seven-day disaster declaration.
Local government and private entities have canceled events and curbed operations in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, commonly referred to as the coronavirus.
As of Monday afternoon, Hidalgo County health officials had not confirmed any presumptive or positive cases in the region.
The judges’ move to delay trials is just one in a slew of measures taken on the recommendation of the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Office of Court Administration regarding halting “non-essential” proceedings in courthouses to protect staff, defendants and the public.
Thousands of people filter through the courthouse’s hallways every day in Hidalgo County, including people visiting the clerk’s office for marriage licenses, people attending court hearings or families coming to court to attend the hearings of loved ones they have who are in jail and unable to bond out.
“There is a lot to be said about what happened today, but one of the most important things that needs to get out the public is the courthouse is open and that we are still going to administer justice. We just need to modify the rules of congregation, just reduce the numbers, so we can make sure we at least stay ahead of the game,” Administrative Local Presiding Judge Noe Gonzalez said after Monday’s meeting.
Those efforts are wide ranging and — in addition to the delay in jury empaneling — the judges discussed what is “essential” and what is “non-essential” within the courthouse.
Family law and protective orders will remain essential, but court hearings for people who are out on bond will likely be reset.
For instance, in juvenile court, defendants who are out on bond will have their hearings reset while the juvenile courts will concentrate on cases where the juveniles are in custody.
“Our courts also do the same,” Gonzalez, who sits on the bench of the 370th state District Court, said. “If we have criminal cases that are out on bond, well we put less emphasis on those and more emphasis on those that are incarcerated.”
As for people who have been indicted, Gonzalez said courts will be encouraging defense attorneys to file waivers of arraignment to reduce the number of people coming to the courthouse. A waiver of arraignment is a document that basically allows a defendant to enter a not guilty plea and then the individual will be told what their next court date is.
“That way we can track them. We have addresses. We have phone numbers. We have the ability to contact the lawyer and make sure the defendant will show up at the reset day,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t want to lose anybody that’s accused of a crime. However, we don’t want to assemble large groups just to tell them that they’re going to be reset for a different time.”
Another change is a postponement in grand jury empaneling. There are two sitting grand juries right now and these groups will continue to work until June. No new grand juries will be called.
There will also be an emphasis on using video.
Gonzalez said the IT staff is working with the courts to get video conferencing more widespread throughout the courtrooms so that defense attorneys, judges, prosecutors and defendants can appear for hearings remotely. While the system might be what Gonzalez called “bare bones” during the meeting, the goal is to be operational by the end of the week.
There’s also a possibility the state may step in to assist with funding this measure, Gonzalez said.
Another common practice that will be ending for the foreseeable future is contact between family members and inmates. It’s not uncommon in the courthouse for a judge to allow a family member a few minutes with an incarcerated loved one before that individual is taken back to jail.
Because of coronavirus concerns, there will be no contact between inmates and the public at the courthouse.
There will also be an effort to place screens outside of courtrooms to limit the number of people inside the courtrooms during hearings.
“We are finding alternatives for people who may be suffering from certain, either ailments that they are concerned about being around too many people, or that they are exhibiting characteristics or symptomatology or anything like that that may be consistent with what we’re watching out for,” Gonzalez said. “And if that happens, we want to have alternatives. And one of those alternatives was video access.”
Another change at the courthouse will impact people enrolled in specialty courts like DWI or drug courts. All specialty courts are currently suspended until further notice.
There will be an effort to bond out low level, non-violent offenders charged with class A and B misdemeanors and possibly even some state jail felonies, Gonzalez said.
This will be up to county court-at-law judges and the district attorney’s office, mostly, according to Gonzalez, who added that officials will have to examine an inmate’s propensity for violence and whether the crimes are violent. But low level drug and theft cases are going to be looked at closely, the judge added.
There are several reasons to get these people out of jail, Gonzalez added, including reducing the jail’s population in the event that someone who is incarcerated becomes ill with coronavirus.
“We don’t know what the independent or private jails that we are utilizing, or the other counties that we’re utilizing to house our prisons, are going to do,” Gonzalez said. “They may choose to say come pick up your prisons. We don’t know. So we have to cut that off at the pass.
“We need to make sure that we try to get as many people out on bond that are bondable and that are in fact low-level, non-violent offenders because if we can do that we are ahead of the game. We are not going to be in danger of having some emergency process set up. We can handle it right now.”
Gonzalez said there is also a discussion with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, which leads security at the courthouse, to use temperature gauges outside courtrooms to monitor a person’s temperature for a fever.
The judges are expected to meet again in a few days and voted to decide on April 20 whether the cancellation of jury panels should continues.
And if Hidalgo County gets to the point where people are under quarantine and they don’t want to cooperate, Gonzalez is also one of 22 judges in the state who has the power to enter quarantine orders.
The judge said he wanted to remind the community that following the advice of medical professionals isn’t just about protecting yourself.
“It’s not a time to be selfish. It’s a time to understand that we’re all connected. If one member of the community doesn’t abide by the rules, then the whole community will suffer,” Gonzalez said. “We need to make sure that we’re consistent. So that is the most important thing at this point to understand. Follow instructions. Follow the advice of the experts and make sure you take care of your family and loved ones.”