UPDATE: On March 27 the Virginia Supreme Court of Virginia announced the judicial emergency declaration due to the coronavirus pandemic will continue in effect from April 6 through April 26.
Earlier: Virginia courts have been ordered to halt all non-emergency proceedings at least through early April in response to the coronavirus outbreak, effectively putting a pause on thousands of trials as well as eviction and debt-collection lawsuits.
The sweeping emergency order, issued March 16 by Chief Justice Donald Lemons of the Supreme Court of Virginia at the request of Gov. Ralph Northam, postpones virtually all civil, traffic and criminal cases heard in state courts until after April 6.
“This Order declaring a judicial emergency is hereby issued for all district and circuit courts of the Commonwealth to protect the health and safety of court employees, litigants, judges, and the general public,” Lemons wrote.
The order exempts cases facing “speedy trial” deadlines and emergency proceedings, including quarantine matters, arraignments, bail reviews, protective order cases, emergency child custody or protection cases and civil commitment hearings.
State courts in the Lynchburg region will remain open under the order, but officials are asking only those with essential business to enter courthouses. Some courts plan to use video conferencing to conduct bail hearings and other matters, including general district courts located in the Lynchburg region.
“We’re trying to do what we can so we don’t put anybody at risk,” Chief Judge Sam Eggleston III, of the Lynchburg, Amherst and Nelson general district courts, said. “It’s a new thing for everybody. I don’t know anybody who has had to live through anything like this before.”
Lemons’ order came the same day U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski, the chief federal judge in western Virginia, also postponed in-person proceedings in criminal, civil and bankruptcy cases.
Federal courthouses in the Western District, which includes Lynchburg, will keep their doors open to accept non-electronic filings, according to the order. All in-person federal hearings scheduled this month, however, have been postponed and all criminal and civil trials will be suspended until after April 30.
Amherst County Commonwealth’s Lyle Carver said his office has been extremely busy working on cases during the judicial emergency. Nearly every case will be impacted by the state’s emergency orders, he said.
“Our cases for the next three weeks are almost all being continued. We do not yet know if this will end at three weeks,” Carver said in a March 18 email. “Each of these continued cases will need to be reset in the future and our available times for future cases is limited because those dates were previously filled with existing cases.”
Prosecutors are ministers of justice so they must ensure the system is fair to defendants while fighting for victims of crimes, he said.
“We are extremely busy with looking at each case, communicating with defense attorneys as well as victims and witnesses,” Carver said. “The times are unprecedented but I’m proud of how my staff has responded to this challenge.”
In response to the court orders, the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority has delayed the reporting dates for offenders ordered to serve weekend jail sentences by 60 days.
Administrator Tim Trent said the jail system, which serves Lynchburg and Amherst, Bedford, Campbell and Halifax counties, has also suspended all visitations for the foreseeable future and will instead make phone calls free for inmates.
Trent said the jail system has instituted stricter health screening measures for new inmates and has ramped up disinfection efforts to keep facilities clean.
While traffic flow at the courthouse is greatly reduced during the pandemic, county emergency and law enforcement workers also are implementing measures to deal with COVID-19.
The Amherst County Sheriff’s Office said on its official Facebook page it is suspending fingerprinting for the public until further notice and depending on the call law enforcement deputies could be wearing a mask and gloves for their protection and the public’s.
Amherst County Public Safety Director Sam Bryant also has announced emergency medical service and fire department personnel will serve the public in protective equipment. “This approach to patient care has not been seen in our community in a very long time so please do not be alarmed,” Bryant wrote in the announcement posted on the county’s website. “We are doing this in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus and as a precaution for all.”
Justin Faulconer contributed.