El Paso County will freeze all jury trials, the court announced Aug. 2, after a court staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Court operations will be limited to “essential functions only” for a minimum of two weeks from that date.
“We are working closely with the Department of Health to gather additional information and to make these contact tracing notifications,” Chief Judge William Bain said. “To do so most effectively, and in the interest of public safety, all jury trials and most other in-person hearings are now postponed until further notice.”
On July 31, a staff member at the judicial building, located in Colorado Springs, returned positive COVID-19 test results and entered quarantine. The staff member was asymptomatic on July 29 but began to develop symptoms that night, said judicial branch public information officer Jon Sarché. The worker followed daily symptom-checking procedures and stayed home on July 30 when they notified their supervisor and sought medical care.
After notifying the El Paso County Department of Public Health, their deputy medical director instructed the court to notify all individuals in the courtrooms where the staff member was present “and to quarantine for 14 days from date of exposure,” Bain said in a statement.
The staff member was not assigned to any jury trails but had worked a criminal docket in Division 15 on July 27 and a four-hour proceeding in Division 19 on July 29, according to the release. If someone appeared in either division on those dates, the court requested contact for further information.
The county public health agency recommends that anyone affected by these events watch for symptoms of COVID-19 for 14 days from their time in court and make “all efforts to avoid interaction with high-risk populations,” according to the release.
All court staff in those divisions were instructed to quarantine by county public health, Sarché said. “Additional court staff who were in the courtroom have also been instructed to quarantine as an additional precaution.”
“We will use this experience to enhance our safety protocols so the community may safely continue to conduct business in El Paso County’s courthouse,” Bain said. “In the meantime, we will continue to practice the safety protocols established by the health department for any necessary in-person hearings.”
Sarché was unaware of any specific changes being made in any courts plans to reopen in response to this incident. While courts continue to learn from this instance, all of Colorado’s courts need careful planning and preparation to reopen, Sarché said. He added that the experience will be used as other courts’ plans are refined.
“The health and safety of everyone inside courthouses remains the paramount concern as local Chief Judges and administrative leaders continue to work with state and local health officials to fine-tune operations in response to the pandemic,” Sarché said, adding part of that planning has to include responding to the kind of situation seen in Colorado Springs.
While the court continues to notify and “determine scope the exposure,” the court will continue to offer limited emergency services, according to the release.
The limited emergency services include petitions for temporary civil protection orders and permanent protection order hearings; petitions for temporary emergency risk protection orders and hearings on orders; Crim. P. Rule 5 advisements for incarcerated persons and initial setting of bail; juvenile detention and advisement; shelter hearings in dependency and neglect cases; hearings on motions to restrict parenting time and parental abduction prevention; emergency guardian or special conservator hearings; and emergency mental health filings and proceedings.
For proceedings necessary to protect constitutional rights of criminal defendants, including bond-related matters and plea agreements, bond will be addressed at the Rule 5 advisement hearing and “will not be addressed again” until Aug. 17 or after, according to the release. This arose from another recommendation that the sheriff’s office doesn’t have the technological capability to conduct audio-video hearings, and as such “no plea agreements for in-custody defendants shall be accepted” until at least Aug. 17.
In addition, the court will offer revocation hearings on complaints to revoke probation involving an incarcerated defendant, due to recommendations from the county department of health that the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have the technological capability to conduct those hearings remotely, according to the release. All revocation hearings currently set between Aug. 3 and Aug. 14 are rescheduled for the week of Aug. 17.
Anyone with questions about their potential risk or exposure can contact the El Paso County Department of Public Health’s Communicable Disease program at 719-578-3220. Further information on COVID-19 can be found at the department’s website, www.elpasocountyhealth.org.
— Avery Martinez