The Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted nearly every facet of life for Virginians and it’s made no exception for the state’s criminal justice system.
In March, Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Lemons announced a judicial emergency until April 16, effectively bringing the state’s court system to a near halt. Then, following Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order announced on Monday, judges in the 28th Judicial Circuit and District took it a step further and ordered an indefinite move to only “mission critical” functions.
The order affects circuit, general district and juvenile and domestic relations courts in Smyth and Washington counties and the City of Bristol.
According to the order, court districts are authorized by Virginia law to determine when courts and clerk’s offices are open and can alter hours and functions during a threat to the health and safety of court personnel or the general public.
While the order allows courts and clerk’s offices to remain open, it puts strict limitations on their functions.
According to the order, all in-person court proceedings in the 28th Circuit and District are continued until further notice by the courts. Exceptions to the order include hearings for protective orders, criminal cases with speedy trial issues, temporary detention orders, mental health-related hearings and involuntary admission to inpatient facilities, among other exceptions.
Arraignments and bond hearings will also continue, but are ordered to be conducted by video conference whenever possible.
“It is further ordered that no incarcerated person shall be transported to any court without a written order of the court in which that person’s matter is pending,” the order states.
The order also directs courthouse security to deny admission to any person exhibiting symptoms of or who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
Further measures to help protect against the spread of the illness have been taken by increasing sanitation efforts at the courthouses and staggering courthouse staff shifts. Staff in the court clerk’s offices, commonwealth’s attorney’s office, victim-witness coordinators and other courthouse services have divided into teams, alternating between working from home and at the courthouse.
Anyone who has pending hearings in any of the courts should contact the respective clerk’s office for additional information on their proceedings. Those with business at other courthouse offices are encouraged to either access services online or contact the office to see how is best to do so.