Domestic Violence And COVID-19
Does Your Firm Take on Any Domestic Violence Defense Cases or Are You Sticking with DWI and Traffic-Related Offenses?
I have always handled domestic violence [“DV”] cases. These cases generally involve conduct that is classified as an offense or a crime. The domestic violence court deals with cases where there should be restraints between the two people involved. DV proceedings are very different from criminal proceedings. For example, there is no discovery practice, other than to the extent that the people may agree or the judge may order on a particular case. There have been very few final restraining order [“FRO”] hearings because we cannot have in-person hearings, although this may change given directions from the Administrative Office of the Courts [“AOC”] to conduct them virtually. A person accused of domestic violence will have to scramble to find alternative housing and basically survive until the courts reopen.
Of course, the mainstay of this law firm is the defense of people charged with DWI, crimes, and traffic offenses.
What Is Happening with the Courts in Your Area, and When Do You Expect Them to Reopen?
The municipal courts have essentially been shut down, as far as in-person appearances are concerned. That started with an order from our Chief Justice, Stuart Rabner, issued on Saturday, March 14th. We have had a few remote court appearances, post-conviction relief petitions, and case management conferences, all virtually. We have had only a few substantive motions requiring testimony. In-person court appearances are starting on a very limited basis. We are doing as much as we can by conference call and virtual court appearances via Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WebEx, and similar platforms. We are also giving seminars using Zoom and having a number of different “happy hours,” just so that everyone can keep acquainted.
As far as new business goes, things have been very slow. In the entire state of New Jersey, only 58 DWI tickets were written in the month of April–about three percent of the normal rate. Domestic violence does seem to be on the rise and, as a result, temporary restraining orders are being issued. Sometimes, cases are able to resolve without an in-person appearance. Courts are trying to do trials on domestic violence matters via Zoom, but most attorneys object to that because Zoom does not lend itself to confronting witnesses or seeing what is going on outside of the frame. Nonetheless, many judges are insisting that FRO hearings proceed virtually. This will lead to many appeals.
If Someone Is Facing Charges for a New Crime Post or During the COVID-19 Shut Down, What Are The Best Ways To Connect With Your Office? Can I Still Hire You? Should I Wait to Hire An Attorney Until Things Reopen?
My office has remained open throughout this crisis. We have been maintaining close contact with our clients and resolving some cases using a process called Plea-by-Mail, where the client signs a certification or affidavit. We have been able to resolve some cases by plea agreement, and that is going to ease the burden when we get back in court.
Do You Fear that Plea Deals Are Going to Be Rushed When Court Resumes? How Would You Advise Your Clients?
On more minor offenses, this current situation has actually enhanced dispositions because prosecutors seem to be more willing to dismiss or give favorable downgrades. We are resolving a lot of minor tickets. As to resolving more serious cases, I have not really seen much movement other than case management. Prosecutors just do not seem to be very willing to deal with cases while we are locked down.
In New Jersey, we have what is called bail reform. On certain charges, when a person is arrested, they must go to jail for at least a day before they appear in front of a judge, who will assess whether they are a risk to society and what conditions would be necessary to assure their appearance at future court appearances. People who are serving sentences and may be eligible for parole are being released early. Jails have become hotbeds for the spread of COVID-19 due to the close quarters and interpersonal contact. Most jails are on lockdown, meaning that inmates are usually confined to their cells for 23 hours per day. They are given an hour per day to do basic things, like shower and make phone calls. These are extraordinary conditions that probably would not be tolerated but for the fact that we have this virus out there. Jails have been trying to reduce their populations by releasing non-violent offenders and avoiding bringing new people in.
One irony is that prosecutors have been very reluctant to agree to the release of people who have not been convicted and are just being held pending trial. It seems very unfair that those who are presumed innocent seem to be treated more harshly than those who have already been convicted.
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