By Dennis Minich
Although never fully closed, the court system in the area has been limited since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. But plans are in place to get things moving a little faster starting Monday.
Circuit Clerk Kim York said, “We have been accepting all filings and other documents, we have just been limited in contact. People have been able to come to the (Justice Center), but we were working from the lobby. We are in phase one right now, but we will move to phase two June 1 (Monday) and hopefully phase three on June 25.”
The phases are outlined by the Missouri Supreme Court on what precautions have to be taken.
William Collins, the presiding judge of the 17th Judicial District, which includes Cass and Johnson counties, said television and computers have helped the process going, albeit at a slower pace.
“The technology is there, but there are attorneys who don’t like the technology, but everyone has been adapting,” Collins said.
The supreme court authorized the use of video conferencing for arraignments and some other legal proceedings.
When the second phase kicks in, in person proceedings will be possible, except with strict limitations. Among the changes are, a limited number of people will be allowed in courtrooms at any time and social distancing guidelines will have to be observed. To help the flow, the revolving door will be closed and separate doors will be used as entrances and exits and there will be a different door for potential jurors.
If someone comes to court too early, they will be met at the door and given a note letting them know the proper time to arrive. No one is to come into the Justice Center more than 10 minutes prior to their proceedings.
“Logistically it has been complicated,” York said. “Once in the building it’s pretty easy, but controlling outside and the parking lot is more difficult.”
Part of the plan, according to Collins, will be AM radio broadcasts which will tell people when they are to enter the center. People should wait in their cars and wait until they hear their names.
Already in June, at least two jury trials are planned and there will be changes in how those trials are held as well.
“We will have to negotiate how we can impanel a jury. It will be much more time consuming. First, we don’t know who all will show up. And there won’t be the cattle call for jurors, so we will have to stagger times and when people should come in. It may take two or three days just to find a jury,” Collins said.
Once impaneled, jurors will not use the jury box, but will instead be seated socially distanced in the viewers’ gallery. A conference room, which is much larger than the traditional jurors’ room, will be used to help keep six-feet separations possible.
With the viewers’ gallery used by the jury, closed circuit television will likely be used for observers to watch the proceedings.
Like so many other elements of life since the Coronavirus outbreak, the courts are on a trial-and-error basis.
“This is just so unprecedented,” Collins said.
Following are the rules for the justice center beginning Monday as provided by York:
Everyone entering the building will be asked screening questions, including employees.
Those not passing the screening will not be admitted into the building.
Information regarding how to proceed with a case will be provided to anyone who cannot enter the building.
Social distancing of six feet must be maintained at all times in all areas, including employees, members of the public and attorneys when meeting with their clients
There are designated lines for entering the building and at the clerk’s counter.
Social distancing markers are on the floor to designate six-feet increments Courtroom seating is marked six feet apart for social distancing.
Elevators are limited to two people at a time.
Stairs are marked to establish one-way traffic.
Building capacity restricted:
The number of people who are allowed in the building at any one time will be limited to ensure appropriate building capacity limits.
We request that only parties to the case enter the building and that all other guests wait outside the building unless absolutely necessary.
Please enter the building no earlier than 10 minutes prior to your scheduled court time.
During peak times, court participants may be checked in outside or as they
drive into the parking lot.
Court participants may be asked to wait in their car (or outside) until notified to enter.
Radio broadcasting via channel 1680 AM may be used for such notifications.
Masks and protective face coverings are allowed. If you do not have a mask, a disposable one will be provided.
Staff are required to wear a mask unless seated at their desk.
Hand sanitizer is available and restrooms have soap, water and towels.
Frequent cleaning and sanitizing of high-traffic areas is conducted throughout the day.
Options for vulnerable individuals:
Individuals with concerns about participating in court proceedings in person will be allowed to either participate in proceedings remotely or postpone their required presence.
Call 816-380-8227 and speak to a clerk about your options or leave a message for a return call at 816-380-8235.
Separate instructions are available for potential jurors. They are asked to contact the circuit clerk’s office for more information.