Pennsylvania and New Jersey Criminal Courts Switch to Video Hearings During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Pennsylvania and New Jers…

Never before have our federal, state, and local governments faced challenges on the scale that has been brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic. The rapid infection rate of COVID-19 has led state and federal courts to take unprecedented measures in order to reduce the risk of transmission in our courthouses, jails, and communities. One of these measures has been postponing certain court proceedings and allowing attorneys and litigants to conduct hearings remotely. Here are some of the specific steps that have been taken by courts in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Expanded Access to Video Hearings and Teleconferencing

Chief Judge Juan Sanchez of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued an unprecedented order on March 30, 2020. The standing order allows video conferencing (or alternatively, telephonic conferencing) to be used to conduct many types of pretrial criminal case hearings. These include:

  • Detention hearings
  • Initial appearances
  • Preliminary hearings
  • Waivers of indictment
  • Arraignments
  • Probation and supervised release hearings
  • Pretrial release revocation hearings
  • Misdemeanor pleas and sentencing
  • Juvenile delinquency proceedings (except for trials and adjudications)

This covers essentially all court matters other than trials and felony plea or sentencing hearings. There is, however, an exception that allows felony pleas and sentencing hearings to be conducted by video conferencing if the defendant consents after consulting with his or her attorney.

Chief Judge Freda F. Wolfson of the U.S. District Court of New Jersey also issued a similar order on March 30th. This order also emphasized the need for video conferencing (and teleconferencing when video is not available) in all possible situations.

How to Safely Obtain Required Signatures During a Pandemic

Chief Judge Wolfson's order also contained a unique provision regarding signatures: any signature may be accepted electronically where it is unsafe to obtain an actual signature due to COVID-19. The presiding judge or defense attorney may also sign on a defendant's behalf, if the defendant consents after an opportunity to consult with his or her attorney. When the defendant consents to something or waives his or her rights, the consent or waiver "may be obtained in whatever form is most practicable under the circumstances, so long as the defendant's consent or waiver is clearly reflected in the record."

This raises an important issue that defendants and defense counsel must be aware of. While physical signatures have long been touted as a necessary safeguard of constitutional rights, they are not necessarily safe to obtain during the COVID-19 crisis. If you are appearing in a court where such signature provisions have not already been enacted, speak with your attorney about the safest way to make a record of your consent or waiver without endangering your health. You can record your consent or waiver on a video or audio recording. You can electronically sign documents. Mobile notaries are now offering distance signing. These and other measures can help keep you safe while also protecting your constitutional rights.

Other Extraordinary Measures Taken in Extraordinary Times

Opening the courts to the public has long been an important part of American jurisprudence. It symbolizes our open court system and discourages any sort of underhanded dealings in the court. ABC 27 reports that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania closed all general court sessions to the public on March 19. The order lasts through April 30. As much as this action runs contrary to our idea of American justice, it is clearly a necessary preventative measure in these dangerous times. Many other courts across the country are severely restricting access, as well. We are unlikely to see such a closed court system again in our lifetimes.

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported on concerning allegations regarding juvenile court, where juvenile defendants are being transferred across the state to new detention facilities even as the virus spreads through our population. Here, too, attorneys have the opportunity to make arguments that have not been persuasive to criminal court judges in the past. Children have never before faced the dangers to which they are now exposed in our state’s juvenile detention facilities. This fact may make judges more inclined to allow children to remain in the home - or at least remain in their current state placements - rather than ordering them to be confined in new juvenile detention placements.

According to NBC Philadelphia, the ACLU has already filed a petition asking the state Supreme Court to limit the number of inmates in jails, where the disease is "virtually certain to spread like wildfire through the prison population, correctional staff and into the nearby community." The petition focuses on those inmates who are most at risk due to health conditions and those who are nearing the end of their sentence or are eligible for work release programs.

Call Us Today to Schedule a Free Consultation with a Criminal Defense Lawyer

Never before has it been so important for criminal defendants to exercise their rights to pretrial release or video conferencing. In the midst of the current pandemic, any pretrial detention or in-person court hearing can seriously endanger your health. Attorney Lauren Wimmer is an experienced criminal defense lawyer who has helped many defendants defend important constitutional rights.

Call 215-712-1212 or use our contact form to schedule your consultation. Don’t delay - the sooner you have an experienced criminal defense lawyer on your side, the less danger you will face in the jails and courts. Whether you are under investigation, have been arrested, are in pretrial detention, have pretrial release conditions, or are under community supervision pursuant to a conviction or guilty plea, you could face the risk of being put in jail. Consult with a Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible to determine the best way of avoiding this dangerous outcome.

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