Copperas Cove, Coryell County, district courts modifying operations during pandemic
By BRITTANY FHOLER
With the need to practice social distancing, the local courts are modifying the way they operate, with trials being held virtually and other important court business being moved online.
Copperas Cove Municipal Court
For the Copperas Cove Municipal Court, individuals with citations such as traffic tickets, can make payments online and seek payment arrangements, according to Nicola James, the Copperas Cove municipal court administrator. Those can be made at http://www.copperascovetx.gov/municipal_court/.
Municipal Court staff are also available to assist with written inquiries via mail, email and fax (254-547-0802) on a daily basis. The phone lines are also active at 254-547-5030.
Coryell County court
Coryell County Attorney Brandon Belt said his office is still filing criminal cases in court, but mostly only for those presently in jail or who have cases that need to get done for a specific reason.
“Although it has not been pleasant not being able to do our job as we were used to doing it, we have been managing to do what things we must do on a day to day basis mostly remotely, and through ZOOM,” Belt said. “All of our criminal court is occurring on Zoom presently.”
The county’s Child Protective Services cases continue to come in and Belt said his office began its first full docket of those cases on Zoom on Wednesday.
“All of us will be extremely busy catching up on day-to-day things that we have not been able to get done during the shutdown, just because people have not been available, and we have been trying to limit everyone’s exposure as much as possible,” Belt said. “Hopefully this will not go on too much into May; as long as we can get back to some kind of normal schedule by June 1, my office will be able to catch up pretty quick. If it looks like it is going to linger out past that date, we will begin making further modifications in our procedures to allow us to get more things done. That will include having to have some more limited, scheduled, contact with people involved in the process as we move into May.”
Coryell County District Attorney Dusty Boyd said that his office is still closed to the general public foot traffic, but they are making special appointments and arrangements for law enforcement, victims and others that require direct personal interaction. When these meetings are held, all parties involved are maintaining social distancing and wearing personal protection masks.
His office is also using “rotating schedule” for employees so that they are not all at the office at the same time.
“We have remote capabilities, and staff members are able to continue to stay engaged with work activities through that platform,” Boyd said. “We are, additionally, in steady and constant contact with all relevant stakeholders, meaning the courts, law enforcement, defense attorneys, and others that are involved in our criminal justice processes.”
Boyd’s office is having hearings in both the 52nd and the 440th District Courts via a computer platform where all parties can participate and are engaged in the hearings.
“We have managed to continue to move cases forward through that system, and it has worked well,” Boyd said. “We have had bond hearings, writ hearings, and plea hearings. We are doing everything we can to ensure that all essential and even some non-essential hearings are had in order to keep our processes moving forward.”
Boyd said there has been a “tremendous effort” on the part of the D.A.’s office, the County Attorney’s Office, members of the Defense Bar, the courts, the jail, the clerk’s office, Probation as well as the Indigent Defense Department to ensure that cases move along “as efficiently and effectively as we can under these circumstances.”
Boyd also has weekly meetings with both the Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza, as well as the McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson online where they discuss the various issues and dynamics related to the current conditions that they are operating under.
“Through those communications, we all three have an appreciation and understanding about the issues we each face in our own jurisdictions and what responses we are engaging in to address those issues and best practices related to them,” Boyd said.
Defense attorney Mary Beth Harrell said she has been focused on making sure her clients do not have their rights compromised. Her clients recognize that there is a virus and want their health protected, and so they understand that this situation is something that everyone must cope with, she said.
“It’s nobody’s fault, really. It’s a virus, so we all just have to do our best to protect each other,” Harrell said. “This is such a completely new and unexpected challenge for the criminal justice system that I think everybody’s trying to do a really good job of coping with it, especially for the people who are still in jail.”
The critical issue is making sure that all parties involved, especially the accused in jail, are able to access the hardware and technology needed for the new way of holding courts, which are laptops or computers and the online video conference platform, Zoom.
Harrell said her husband, Bob Harrell, who is the county’s Emergency Management Coordinator, has been working to make sure that the County gets the laptops to the county offices that don’t yet have them and also to the judges so that they can participate remotely in hearings and conferences.
In a misdemeanor case, there are at least four key players in a court case: the accused, the judge, the prosecutor and the defense attorney, and all have to have a laptop or computer to appear on Zoom, Harrell said. For felony hearings, the court reporter must also be able to tap into the video conference.
“It’s just such a thoroughly unique challenge and then has its own inherent set of costs, especially for the county, and you know, I truly don’t believe there was any way to anticipate this, so everybody’s doing their best to cooperate,” Harrell said. “But I think any defense attorney will tell you first and foremost, we’re concerned about protecting the rights of our clients to not be held in jail under an unreasonable bail, to get into court as quickly as possible to have their case heard, so that there is no delay in justice.”
Harrell added that she felt in her experience that there is very good cooperation between the District Attorney, County Attorney, Defense Bar and judges in Coryell County.
Harrell was in her office on Wednesday to meet face to face with some clients who needed reassurance but said she was prepared with a face mask and implementing social distancing where possible.
“When a client really needs that face to face reassurance, we can do that, being careful, but on the whole, we have really good constant contact with our clients by phone, by email, by text, and they are having to deal with the fact that their cases are getting reset by the courts, sometimes 30 days out, sometimes 60 days out,” Harrell said.
Jury trials have been postponed until May at least, because the courts are trying to comply with CDC guidelines, which advise against more than 10 people in a room at a time.
Harrell said she and her staff are only seeing people at the office by appointment when necessary.
“It’s uncomfortable because, you know, you get used to a certain routine, but we are still able to really take care of our clients.”