What should I do during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Shutdown?
Here in Ohio, criminal courts are all but closed due to the Ohio coronavirus shutdown. That means that most courts are only handling things they deem as absolute necessities—like new arrests for violent offenses. The rest of the criminal dockets seem to be frozen in
time. The Ohio Supreme Court has issued an order delaying timelines and filing deadlines. That means motions, appeals, post-conviction petitions and the like are all delayed. In Franklin County and the City of Columbus, we are now on our second round of continuances. Many cases that were scheduled for March are not pushed to June and beyond.
Most of the announcements from the court system are aimed at the court staff, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. At Yavitch & Palmer, we have found that the most important folks in the system—the defendants and litigants—may not completely understand what is happening with their cases.
As we sit at home in quarantine (or watch others stay at home while we do our “essential” jobs), it’s easy to forget about the real world. But rest assured, the real world lurks somewhere behind Governor DeWine’s shutdown order. It will return. And when it does, it will come fast, and it will be chaotic. Courts are going to want to clear their clogged and delayed dockets, the timelines and deadlines will turn back on, and those who aren’t careful will get caught with their proverbial pants down.
If you happened to have a case that is “stuck” in the COVID-19 coronavirus quagmire, here are 5 things to keep in mind:
1. Law is Essential. Under Governor DeWine’s Order, legal work is considered essential. This is not because the attorneys have some conspiracy to take over the world. This reflects an understanding that legal needs can be urgent and require immediate attention. In the realm of criminal defense, people can still get arrested and charged with crimes—rightly or wrongly. Pending cases still need work. And clients still have the same anxiety and concern about their cases—maybe even more so. The COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t seem to care about some criminal case that looks like a number in the system. But depending on the type of case, that number represents someone’s livelihood, future, and freedom. You bet that is “essential.” And at Yavitch & Palmer, we are at the office every day to make sure these essential matters are not treated like insignificant numbers.
2. Make sure you know your court date. In normal times, this might seem obvious. But it’s easy to get confused by the array of COVID information coming out of the system. In many cases, courts are continuing cases on their own, sometimes without even talking to the attorneys or defendants. As the shutdown orders get extended, court dates get pushed. There is no reason not to get in front of this problem now. Contact your attorney. Look at the court’s online docket (if it has one), or even call the clerk of courts (most are open, even if it’s part-time reduced hours). Get your court date and make sure you keep up on any changes.
3. Take Advantage. Get a Resolution. We are not the only folks who see the storm of cases coming. Courts and prosecutors know full well that when the system opens, there’s going to be a backlog of cases, hearings, trials and work. To get ahead of this problem, many prosecutors are willing to discuss plea resolutions during the shutdown. Many prosecutors are working remotely. They are not bogged down by long morning court appearances, and they have time to look at individual cases in advance. There may be an opportunity to expedite the process and get a resolution that would have otherwise required multiple court appearances. At Yavitch & Palmer, we are taking advantage of this opportunity by reaching out to prosecutors to discuss pending cases.
4. Build the Ark. Irrespective of anyone’s beliefs, the Bible is chock-full of stories that represent thousands of years of human wisdom. Noah’s story is no different. He built his ark to save himself from the coming flood while everyone else did nothing. The lesson here is obvious—prepare, prepare, prepare. If you have a pending jury trial, now is the time to review your timeline, look at the discovery and investigative files again, talk to your attorney about the case. Get prepared.
I’ve been a trial attorney in the criminal courts for almost a quarter of a century. I’ve learned a few things. Invariably, as we prepare for trials, we always wish and want for certain things. Maybe we wish we had a witness to say this or that. We might want some solid proof of a detail that’s crucial to the case. We might wish that we had a better set of facts. Most of the time, we can’t control those things. But too often I hear attorneys wishing for more time. They wish they had more time to prepare for that argument. They wish they had more time to consider their voir dire (jury questions). They wish they had more time to prep the case.
Right now, during the COVID-19 shutdowns, we have the gift of time. If there is a trial looming, now is the time to do things that we might later wish for. We at Yavitch & Palmer are doing our best to spend this time wisely to prepare for the storm. The trials are coming.
Now is the time to build the ark. If you have a trial that was imminent before the shutdowns, reach out, discuss it with your attorney. Even if you thought you were totally prepared, now is the time to make sure your ark is solid and all the possible leaks are shored up.
5. Idle Hands Do the Devil’s Work. Old sayings become old sayings for a reason. Time is not a vacuum full of nothingness. Time passes, and we must decide what we will do with it. If we do not occupy ourselves with positive action, we tend to engage in dangerous, risky, or down-right bad behavior.
To use the example of OVI cases, I often tell folks that I can deal with the current problem, whatever it is. That’s what I have done my whole career. But let’s not make it worse. And let’s do our best to shrink the problem, not expand it.
While cases are pending and we are waiting for the courts to start back up, it’s easy to forget about the resolution not to drink. It’s easy to throw out the promise never to drink and drive again. Why not drive on a suspended license? They aren’t enforcing anything anyway. It’s easy to say “f&@k it,” and do something we know is risky.
The consequences of our decisions now will come home to roost—good or bad. I can go to court in a month or two and tell the judge all the positive stuff my client did during the shutdown (even if it’s just maintaining work and sobriety). Or I can go to court and try to explain how stress and pressure got the best of my client, who made a bad decision to do _______.
I have said it to myself, and I’ve heard lots of people say the same thing: “It can’t get any worse.” This is usually a poor self-justification to say “F-it” and do something stupid. Well, it can get worse, and it will get worse if we let it.
If nothing else, now is the time for reflection and positive action.
For any questions about pending cases, help with new cases, or any other legal matters, Stephen Palmer is in the office daily. Reach out here or call 614-224-6142.