Florida’s criminal defense lawyers want virtual court again amid COVID-19 spike

Supreme Court of Florida
Florida's Chief Justice has said the court will remain committed to using remote technology.

As the Sunshine State emerges as a hotbed of COVID-19 infections, Florida’s defense lawyers want courts to go back to using Zoom hearings for all non-essential hearings.

In a press release, the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (FACDL) said using Zoom proceedings for all matters that do not constitutionally require in-person appearances will lower the possibility of infection.

“The use of Zoom can be both more efficient and, frankly, safer,” wrote the group in the release.

The Florida Supreme Court released a statement Tuesday after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines for wearing masks. The statement said, in part, Chief Justice Charles Canady is “actively reviewing available health data and the work of courts throughout the state.”

“Chief Justice Charles Canady and leadership of the State Courts System continue to monitor health conditions throughout the state and remain alert to guidance provided by state and federal health agencies, including updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations issued today,” read the written release.

The release pointed to a June 4 administrative order issued by Canady as the latest COVID-19 guidance for Florida courts. That order encourages the continuation of remote court proceedings where possible, but does not require them.

President of the FACDL Jude M. Faccidomo warned that if preventative measures aren’t taken, the courts will add to an already existing backlog.

“We are extremely concerned about the uptick in positive coronavirus cases throughout the state. FACDL is concerned that if proactive steps are not taken now, more severe measures will be required in the future and will result in further significant adverse due process implications,” Faccidomo said in a written statement.

An estimated 1 million extra court cases are already pending in the state’s court system as of July. The additional caseload is caused by pandemic-related court delays, pandemic-generated cases related to the public health emergency and declining economic conditions, according to the Florida State Courts annual report.

The court’s backlog includes more than 27,000 pending felony cases which are expected to take several years to work through, according to the latest Criminal Justice Estimating Conference from the Economic and Demographic Research.

Faccidomo is also concerned about the levels of infection in pretrial correctional facilities.

“It is nearly impossible to control infection rates in a jail when there is no mandate that employees be vaccinated and new inmates arrive daily,” Faccidomo wrote. “The holding of hearings by Zoom from the jail rather than transporting hundreds of inmates daily also makes better sense for the safety of all.”

During a presentation to legislators earlier this year, Canady said the pandemic had a lasting impact on the court system, and the court will remain committed to using remote technology.

“Our response to the pandemic will forever change the way Florida’s courts operate. Our new ways of doing things have been welcomed by attorneys and are very popular with many of those who come to the courts. Remote proceedings are here to stay,” Canady said.

“Where we can do it remotely and reduce the burden on lawyers and litigants by the use of remote technology, I believe we’ll be committed to doing that.”

Last year on March 11, Canady issued his first COVID-19 administrative order, advising courts around the state to monitor the developing emergency. Two days later Canady issued an order suspending jury trials and grand jury proceedings throughout the state in response to the public health emergency. Subsequent actions limited in-person court proceedings and directed courts to conduct all business remotely that could be done that way.

Florida’s courts from March 11, 2020 to March 10, 2021 conducted 250,000 Zoom meetings with 3.2 million participants.

To address the existing backlog of cases, the Supreme Court plans to use senior judges and part-time general magistrates to address the additional workload because of the public health emergency.

Haley Brown

Haley Brown covers state government for FloridaPolitics.com. Previously, Haley covered the West Virginia Legislature and anchored weekend newscasts for WVVA in Bluefield, W.Va. Haley is a Florida native and a graduate of the University of Florida. You can reach her at [email protected].


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