The everyday routines we enjoyed are changing on a daily basis. Businesses are closed, or working reduced hours, large gatherings are prohibited, various governmental offices are operating at reduced hours or availability, and even law enforcement is taking a different approach in responding to calls if it responds at all. Notwithstanding all of this change, the criminal justice system is plodding along in fits and starts. While speeding tickets, and most cases involving just a fine, are not high on law enforcement’s priority list, jailable offenses, such as domestic violence, drug offenses, and other felonies, are still being filed and pursued.
In Texas, and especially in Williamson County, we are faced with Stay Safe – Stay Home orders being issued after governmental officials declared states of emergency. These orders, depending upon which county you live in, are requiring folks to stay home except for essential activity, or if they work in essential businesses, along with restricting gatherings of 10 or more individuals. Most recently, Governor Abbott issued an order, effective until May 3, that asks all Texans to exercise social distancing, and tries to define essential business and essential activity, in a more uniform manner as opposed to the patchwork orders that various County Judges issued. Under the Governor’s order, and the various orders issued by the County Judge, the court system, along with lawyers providing services within the court system, are considered essential activities. This begs the question: How does the pandemic impact my criminal case?
While one may think that because courts are designated as an essential business, they are open as usual, that is hardly the case. The District and County Courts in Williamson County are primarily limiting themselves to hearing plea deals, bond hearings, and writs on the criminal side. This means that cases are not going to trial, and under the latest General Order issued by the District Courts and County Courts as Law, all jury trials are suspended until at least May of 2020, but will probably not start until at least June 2020, if not being pushed out even farther.
If you have a friend or family member that is in the Williamson County Jail, or should you find yourself being arrested sometime in the near future, please understand that there is no such think as a “Corona Bond”. While the judges in Williamson County are utilizing all of their powers in trying to ensure that reasonable bail is set in cases, some of their ability to grant personal recognizance bonds, or PR bonds as they are typically called, or use the pre-trial release program, is severely hampered. On March 29, 2020, Governor Abbott issued GA-13, which prevents the release of individuals facing violent offenses on PR bonds, along with preventing the release of anyone that was convicted of a violent offense on PR bonds, no matter how long ago the conviction occurred. While some judges in Texas refused to comply with the terms of GA-13, a significant majority of the judges are following the order, including those in Williamson County. The Constitutionality of GA-13 is now being considered by the Texas Supreme Court, after the filing of a case during the week of April 6, 2020. How that case will turn out is uncertain. For now, if you or a loved one is charged with a violent offense, such as assault causing bodily injury – family violence, do not expect to get a PR bond or pre-trial release. You may need to come up with the cash to pay a bondsman.
If you are denied a PR bond, or pre-trial release, do not think that you are stuck in jail. The courts are conducting hearings relating to motions to reduce bonds. As such, it is extremely important that you work with your attorney so that a proper record can be made in these types of cases to ensure that a reasonable bond is set, and you or your loved one can get out of jail and work on a defense.
Additionally, the District and County Courts at Law, are conducting hearings when someone wants to enter a plea bargain in their case. While the mechanism to get the plea entered is a bit clunky, for those facing misdemeanors, or that are offered probation on felonies, jumping through the following hoops is worth getting out of jail. Instead of bringing you over the court to enter your plea in front of the judge, the District and County Courts at Law in Williamson County are conducting such hearings virtually with the assistance of Microsoft Teams. For the virtual hearing to occur, the plea needs to be agreed upon, the plea paperwork sent to your attorney for review and their signature, if you are in jail the paperwork then goes to a specific email address at the jail to be printed for your review and signature, if you are out on bond then you will need to meet with your attorney. The signed paperwork is submitted to the clerk, the case coordinator is contacted, a hearing date is scheduled and an invitation to a Teams video conference is sent to the parties – if the person is in jail they are taken to an area where they can join the hearing. If you are pleading to prison time, please not that TDCJ is NOT accepting individuals from county jails at this time in an effort to minimize the spread of the Corona Virus.
If you or your loved one wants a jury trial, that is not going to happen any time soon. As mentioned, the District and County Courts at Law have suspended jury trials until at least May, and that date may be moved farther out depending upon how the pandemic plays out. Once jury trials resume, it is important to note that certain cases take priority over others – usually, the oldest goes first except when children are the victims in sex crime cases – and those in custody get to trial before those out on bond. This presumes that folks will show up to serve on a jury. Historically speaking, having potential jurors appear in Williamson County was not an issue; however, given the change in demographics, and the heightened sense of personal safety and personal space, it may be more difficult to get 35-60 individuals to appear in a room.
Even though the court system is considered essential, you can see how the changes over the past few weeks are slowing down the criminal justice system. While delays of 9-12 months for a felony trial were the norm before the virus, we are probably looking at 12-18 months out for trials absent extenuating circumstances. For misdemeanors, don’t be surprised if your trial case is bumped out even farther. If you are facing criminal charges, the important thing now more than ever, is to keep your head down and don’t be noticed. You don’t want to do something that may result in you getting stuck in jail until the pandemic subsides.