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Arizona’s Justice System Takes Patchwork Measures to Address Coronavirus; ACLU Files Suit Against Arizona Prison System

Jury Duty Canceled in Some Arizona Courts, Trials Postponed

The Arizona justice system has begun to take stop-gap measures to address concerns over the Coronavirus. Although no general policy has yet been announced, the Maricopa County Superior Court canceled jury selection on Monday to address rising concerns surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak. In a recent update to its website, the Maricopa County courts have also announced that jury duty for Tuesday has been canceled.

The Judicial Branch of Arizona has been attempting to contact prospective jurors to inform them that their jury service has been fulfilled and that they did not need to come into court on Monday. Jurors that have already been seated on a jury were told that they needed to contact the specific courtroom staff to learn about the status of their jury service.

In a tweet posted on Monday, the Phoenix Municipal court informed jurors that they would also be released from jury duty for the day.

Neither the Maricopa County Superior Court nor the Phoenix Municipal Court has yet issued long-term proposals on how they intend to handle jury duty in the coming weeks. Because concerns over COVID-19 are only likely to intensify in the coming days and weeks, it would seem that jury duty cancellation would likely be extended as well.

Scottsdale Municipal Court Jury Duty Suspended, Virtual Court Appearances Implemented

The Scottsdale Municipal Court, in a recent update to its website, has excused all jurors from jury duty from Monday, March 16 to Friday, March 27.

In further efforts to limit the need for in-court appearances, Scottsdale has also announced that it will be accepting not guilty pleas through an online filing system, rather than the usual requirement of an in-person appearance.

The Court also announced that for anyone with a court appearance, the court has remote appearance options available via FaceTime or Skype. Any defendants with an upcoming court appearance can contact a Scottsdale criminal defense attorney to arrange for a virtual appearance.

These developments are a welcome move by the City of Scottsdale, which, until as recently as Monday had described Scottsdale as being “open for business” in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.

U.S. District Court of Arizona Begins Trial Postponements

The Chief Justice of the Arizona District Court issued a directive that took effect on Monday enforcing measures to curb the spread of Coronavirus in the federal courts in Arizona. The Chief Justice issued the directive last Friday.

The Arizona District Court has ordered all civil and criminal trials scheduled to begin on or before April 10, 2020, to be continued. Trials that have already begun in the US District Court will continue until they are completed.

The Court also continued all trial-specific deadlines for criminal cases. Civil trial deadlines could be suspended by individual trial judges at their discretion.

The court directive noted that it was faced with a “reduced ability to obtain an adequate spectrum of jurors,” and that coupled with public health concerns has led the court to take this extraordinary measure.

While the US District Court acknowledged that a criminal defendant has a right to a speedy trial, the current public health concerns outweighed that right.

Maricopa County Jails Restrict Access

Meanwhile, Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone announced on Sunday restrictions in access to the county jails in light of the Coronavirus. In a press release, Sheriff Penzone stated, “I feel that it is appropriate to immediately suspend access into our jail facilities for volunteers or supplemental services.” The Maricopa County Sheriff noted, however, that this measure would not extend to “court-ordered interactions” or “legal obligations.”

In other words, access to legal counsel would not be limited by this directive.

The Sheriff’s Office noted that “newly established tablet technology,” which has been deployed throughout the jail system, will allow for communication with inmates by friends and family.

As a side note, friends and family members who communicate with inmates should continue to be aware, however, that their communications with inmates are not private and are not subject to any privilege, such as the attorney-client privilege. Jail calls are routinely recorded and reviewed by the prosecutor’s office and can be used as evidence against the inmates at trial. When I was a prosecutor, I would routinely review jail calls prior to trial as part of thorough trial preparation. Therefore, in my role as a Scottsdale criminal defense attorney, I would highly recommend that inmates and their families use caution when communicating in the jail and never speak regarding the underlying facts of their case.

The Sheriff’s Office also noted that it was in contact with the private sector to determine if additional products were available to sanitize the jails. The office also noted that it has instituted additional sanitization measures of frequently touched surfaces.

These steps announced by Sheriff Penzone address some of the concerns that we had raised earlier regarding the dangers of Coronavirus spreading in the jail system. They are certainly welcome developments.

As of yet, no cases of Coronavirus have been reported in the Maricopa County jail.

ACLU Files Emergency Motions Regarding Disease Prevention in Arizona Prisons

On Monday, the ACLU and other prisoner advocacy groups filed an emergency motion to order the Arizona prison system to “immediately develop and implement a plan for the prevention and management of COVID-19. The attorneys represent over 34,000 inmates that are currently being housed in Arizona’s prisons. They claim that the correctional officials who oversee the prison system have no discernable plan for the management of the Coronavirus, should it break out in the prison system.

It should be noted, for clarity, that Arizona’s prison systems are separate from its jail system. The prison system is a statewide system under the management of the Arizona Department of Corrections, and it houses inmates who have been convicted of felony crimes, whereas the jail system is under the management of each of Arizona’s individual counties. The jails house less-serious offenders for shorter periods of time than the prison system, and they also house felony defendants awaiting trial.

The Arizona Department of Corrections, meanwhile, has taken the following steps so far to reduce the spread of Coronavirus with its prisons: suspending visitation to the prisons for at least the next 30 days and suspending a $4 copay for inmates seeking medical treatment for cold and flu symptoms.

The motion filed by the ACLU indicates that its attorney surveyed Arizona’s prison systems last week and interviewed over 500 prisoners regarding their conditions. The attorneys called the prison conditions “filthy” and a “breeding ground for infectious disease.” Prison staff also allegedly reported to the attorneys that cleaning supplies used by the prisons have been watered down and that staff has not been given any special training on cleaning under the conditions created by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Meanwhile, prison officers have taken to social media to vent their frustrations with the lack of proper sanitization equipment and procedures in Arizona’s prisons.

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Prison correctional officers expressed outrage on Facebook of the lack of soap, hand sanitizer, gloves, and even toilet paper in the Arizona Department of Corrections.

See our previous posts on the Impact of COVID-19 on the Legal System Here