Andrew Michaels - April 26, 2021
The Circuit Court for Baltimore City resumed full operations with jury trials on April 26, beginning with civil jury trials. Criminal jury trials are scheduled to resume on May 5.
Following the initial shutdown in March 2020, jury trials briefly resumed in October only to cease in December due to rising COVID-19 cases. Under the guidance of the CDC and the Maryland Department of Health, several of the precautionary measures put in place late last year will continue in the court to ensure public safety.
Virtual options for remote hearings will remain in place. Virtual jury selection will be decided on a case by case basis.
Baltimore City Circuit Administrative and Chief Judge Audrey J. S. Carrión told Baltimore Witness that the public can expect the same safety conditions when they return, including contactless temperature checks, social distancing, and a limited number of courtrooms and people admitted into those courtrooms.
Everyone will be required to wear masks. Visitors must also complete a verbal or written COVID-19 questionnaire at the court entrance, including any visitor experience with COVID-19-related symptoms. Visitors are also required to print and sign their name on the visitor log and provide their telephone number for contact tracing.
There could be a refusal of entry if someone has a high temperature, is experiencing COVID-19-related symptoms or if they have recently been in a group with 10 or more people.
Should a COVID-19 case be reported during the trial, the court will use contact tracing. Deliberation will then occur between judges and attorneys to determine how to move forward with impacted proceedings.
Hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes are available throughout the courthouse, with capacity limits posted outside each courtroom. Gallery seating is allotted for eight to 12 people, excluding attorney tables, while magistrate hearing rooms will only allow between two and six people. Plexiglass is placed between jurors, plaintiffs, defendants and judges.
Large televisions are also placed in the courtroom for both virtual and in-person proceedings. Other courtrooms or large conference rooms will be used for jury deliberation to accommodate social distancing. According to Carrión, jury rooms are too small for use with proper social distancing.
“Our goal is to try between eight and 10 civil trials per month and between 10 and 20 criminal trials per month,” Judge Carrión said. “We will have a total of four criminal jury trial rooms and two civil jury trial rooms.”
People who are called for jury panels can also expect a new process when they arrive at the court.
Judge Carrión said a partnership between the court and Baltimore City designates the Baltimore War Memorial Building as a jury assembly area. Some courtrooms will also be designated for the overflow of jury panels.
Both the assembly area has a capacity to fit 312 people, and the memorial building can hold up to 168 panel members.
As part of COVID-19 precautions, jurors will be called to the courthouse in small groups, one panel at a time, to begin the selection process. Judge Carrión said jury selection for criminal trials could occur over a two-day period due to the enhanced safety measures. Jury selection before the pandemic jury selection only lasted one day.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the court has adopted a flexible policy to reschedule jury service to allow jurors to postpone their service within the next 90 days. Those who don’t arrive for their scheduled time can face fines of up to $1,000, jail time of up to 60 days, or both. The same monetary fine and up to 90 days in jail, or both, are possible if jurors do not complete jury service.
“Our goal is to balance the need to give access to the public to try their cases versus the unusual emergency situation that we find ourselves in,” Judge Carrión said. “In balancing that, we have to be able to give the public an opportunity to come in and try their cases.”