Coronavirus forces changes to courts, jails

FAR WEST TEXAS — As the coronavirus pandemic upends life across the country, it’s forcing courts and law enforcement authorities to reassess how they handle everything from lawsuits to inmate releases.

Lockdowns have put all but essential court proceedings on hold. Social-distancing rules have largely made jury trials and other trappings of the legal system out of the question.

Meanwhile, authorities across the country have come under pressure to start releasing inmates in jail or prison (including those not yet convicted of a crime) who suffer from health issues or who were charged with nonviolent offenses — especially as cases of coronavirus have cropped up at some detention facilities.

A sheriff’s deputy in California died last week after contracting coronavirus from an inmate, and New York City reported its first inmate death from coronavirus over the weekend. In Philadelphia, the city’s jails have worse infection rates than any other part of the city.

Sandy Wilson, district attorney for the tri-county, said Big Bend authorities are already grappling with the same issues.

By next week, she estimates her office will finish running through a list of people in tri-county jails who qualify for temporary release. She also said she has already helped to bond and release three nonviolent inmates to protect defendants and law enforcement workers from coronavirus.

Only certain nonviolent offenders qualify for temporary release, Wilson said — and as a general rule, she is only trying to keep violent ones detained. She also stressed that people will return quickly to jail if they reoffend.

Wilson and her staff are working from home, though they do attend some court hearings via Zoom conference. When someone is arrested for a jailable offense, authorities are working to get them processed more quickly, Wilson said.

At press time, it’s unclear how others in the local criminal justice system are reacting to the threat of coronavirus, or whether it’s changed their thinking on criminal justice procedures. Judge Roy Ferguson, Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson and Presidio County Danny Dominguez did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Presidio County Sheriff’s Office previously said it’s taking precautions to keep coronavirus from spreading at its jails, including through extra cleaning and screenings of attorneys and defendants. Visitations at local jails are currently suspended by orders of Governor Greg Abbott.

But as authorities across the state work to secure temporary releases, Texas law might be working against them. The state has “enhancement” clauses that make punishments for some crimes, like arson and burglary, more harsh during disasters.

And as part of his disaster declaration, Governor Greg Abbott also extended the amount of time someone could be held in detention without trial. “You can stay in jail for over 90 days now, without an indictment,” DA Wilson said. “Our goal is to make sure that isn’t happening.”

Other parts of the legal system remain on pause.

The Texas Justice Court Training Center, which provides information and training to justices of the peace and magistrates, has told those judges to stop all nonessential in-person court hearings based on guidance from the state. That could include things like debt-collection cases. And the Texas Supreme Court on Monday ordered all evictions in the state to stop through at least the end of the month.

Both David Beebe, a justice of the peace in Presidio County, and Jim Burr, a justice of the peace in Brewster County, have said they’re postponing most hearings in their court until the pandemic subsides.

“Right now, I would not call a jury trial,” Beebe said. “It’s not a great time to have court.”

At the local level, entities like the Marfa Police Department and Presidio County Sheriff’s Office have found themselves enforcing a slew of new emergency measures, including city- and county-wide curfews, business closures and shelter-in-place orders.

In both Presidio and Marfa, though, local law enforcement said they haven’t encountered any locals who are intentionally defying emergency orders or taking advantage of the situation.

“We have not issued, as of yet, any citations for non-compliance,” Joel Nuñez, chief deputy of Presidio County Sheriff’s Office, said of the situation in the City of Presidio and elsewhere in south county last week. “For the most part, people are complying.”

The City of Presidio, he pointed out, is in a unique position. With a less tourist-dominated economy than elsewhere in the tri-county, many of Presidio’s businesses — from gas stations to grocery stores — were already considered essential.

In Marfa, where the local economy runs on “nonessential” businesses like hotels and bars, coronavirus lockdowns have changed the feel of town. But as of press time, Marfa police have not had to issue any citations, said Police Chief Steve Marquez.

“The citizens of Marfa have been amazing,” he said. He thinks people in Marfa are taking safety precautions seriously.

As Marfa residents learn about and adjust to shelter-in-place rules and other emergency orders, Marquez has said he’s prioritizing education over enforcement. And there’s certainly been a lot of the former.

Residents and visitors have been calling in to inquire what they can and can’t do, he said. At the Marfa police station, “the phone hasn’t stopped.”