A federal grand jury that was set to convene this week has been temporarily suspended as concerns over the swift-moving coronavirus continues to impact daily operations at all level of government.
The decision came via an order signed last Friday by all three district judges who preside in the McAllen Division of the Southern District of Texas. U.S. District Judges Ricardo H. Hinojosa, Randy Crane and Micaela Alvarez unanimously ruled to temporarily stop the clock on grand jury proceedings, which are subject to the time limitations of the Speedy Trial Act of 1974.
“The Court finds that failing to grant a continuance to exclude time under the Speedy Trial Act would result in a miscarriage of justice, and that a continuance is necessary to allow reasonable time for a quorum of the McAllen Division Grand Jury,” the order reads, in part.
The order — which was filed under seal last week and later unsealed sometime Monday — came in response to a motion filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, though that motion remains under seal, court records show.
“Thus, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3161(b) and (h)(7), that the period within which an information or indictment must be filed in these matters shall be continued until May 6, 2020, or the date the grand jury reconvenes,” the order reads, in part.
Federal prosecutors have a narrow window of time during which they can charge a defendant with a crime — just 30 days “from the date on which such an individual was arrested or served with a summons in connection with such charges,” according to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
If no grand jury is in session, however, that timeline can be extended by an additional 30 days, the rules read.
Federal grand juries are held in secret and are made up of between 16 to 23 people from the community. Once empaneled, the grand jury can serve for as many as 18 months, and can convene several times a year to deliberate whether evidence presented by prosecutors, as well as witness testimony, is enough to charge a person with a crime via an indictment.
In order for the grand jury to hand down an indictment against an individual, a quorum of at least 16 people must be present, and at least 12 of them must agree to issue the indictment, according to guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Justice.
As the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 continues to spread throughout Texas and the nation, it has begun affecting how all levels of government and the judiciary operate, including the district courts in the Southern District of Texas, which is made up of seven distinct divisions from Houston to Brownsville.
In the Houston region, where several hundred people have become infected, the Houston and Galveston districts have minimized staff numbers and deferred non-essential court appearances. Those districts have also encouraged appearances via phone, Skype and other remote technology, according to an advisory posted on the Southern District of Texas website Tuesday.
Furthermore, civil and criminal jury trials there have been “deferred through May 1, 2020,” the advisory reads, adding that the situation remains “fluid.”
Back in McAllen, the temporary suspension of the grand jury marks a major shift in federal court proceedings locally. Other changes are rippling their way through the courts, as well, with local district judges granting motions to delay both criminal and civil proceedings over the last couple of weeks.