“It’s just a huge mess,” stated Austin criminal defense lawyer Kevin Bennett when referring to the Travis county and Austin city court systems under siege by a virulent virus. “Fortunately everybody is trying to make the system work while under social distancing restrictions. Courthouse traffic has slowed to a crawl and jury trials are on hold. Many arrest warrants for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses are in suspension and judges are using more personal bonds to try and lower the jail population. But the ones who are really suffering are the ones in jail. There is simply less time and opportunity for an inmate to request release. The result is that a lot of people are spending much more time in jail than they would under normal circumstances.”
One of the worst places a virus can appear would be in a local jail because of the crowded conditions. And the Coronavirus seems to easily spread from one person to another or from group to group. In addition, an infected person usually does not show any symptoms for a week or two. It is not difficult to imagine one ill inmate infecting the entire jail population. The current Travis county jail population is approximately 2000.
“In today’s environment a criminal attorney in Austin has to be quick on his or her feet. I am using every tool in my toolbox to make life a little easier for my clients. That includes bringing ‘hardship issues’ front and center with the judge and asking for his or her help. Years of working with the court system and the judges has given me a keen sense of what judges will accept or reject,” stated Mr. Bennett.
In an effort to cope with the current crisis the Texas Administrative Office of the Courts has designed some guidelines for state courts in the use of video conferencing technology. It appears the favored service provider is Zoom. The overall goal of these remote communications is to reduce or eliminate the need for people to be together in the same room. However, any new system will have some bumps and video conferencing for lawyers, judges, and defendants is no exception. Among other issues the participants are experiencing are too few computers to provide video access. Judges, the key people in the process, are having issues with the coordination of their schedules. In addition, there are concerns with open court laws and some courts are displaying their video court proceedings on a monitor for public viewing.
Video conferencing is a temporary measure that affects a small portion of the legal system in Austin and Travis county. Almost all normal legal representation is at a pause and unable to move forward. This is no more evident than in the application of the death penalty in Texas. Two condemned men have had their executions delayed. Trials where the death penalty is being sought have been halted. And criminal defense attorneys are unable to properly investigate or prepare their cases for their clients.
In other Texas counties law enforcement officials are asking police to stop arresting and jailing people on minor infractions. Offenses that are nonviolent or “petty” should result in a citation rather than an arrest as proposed by some sheriffs and jail officials. Other offenses such as domestic assault or family violence will probably have to be handled in the usual manner. Although the numbers are down, DWI arrests during this pandemic will probably have to spend at least one night in jail – or maybe more if the court system is bogged down with other business.
The Law Office of Kevin Bennett
1411 West Ave #100, Austin, TX 78701