Coronavirus changing justice in Kent County


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Joining all the coronavirus-related delays and cancellations could be your Kent County jury duty, trial and maybe even your jail time.

While anyone facing charges shouldn’t expect their case to be dismissed or that coronavirus is a ‘get out of jail free’ card, the administration of justice is running headlong into the need for public safety.

“We don’t know how long it’s going to be — nobody does. It could be done in a month, it could be done in six months or maybe it’ll go all year or even longer. I don’t know,” Mark Trusock, the chief judge of the Kent County Circuit Court said Thursday, adding that pandemics are not something covered in the Michigan Court Rules.

At the behest of the Michigan Supreme Court, which closed its Lansing courthouse to the public, Kent County courts are making changes. All civil jury trails will be adjourned and criminal cases where the defendant is out on bond will also be likely targets for delay.

“The criminal cases that are going to be given priority obviously are the more serious cases. Some of judges have murders coming up in the next couple of weeks and we don’t want to adjourn those,” Trusock said.

Cases that involve child victims will be among the last delayed, the judge said.

Many people who come to the courthouse come from the Kent County jail, where the idea of a potential outbreak among a cloistered population is worrisome.

“We’re going to look at possibly releasing some people early that at are at the end of their jail sentences,” Trusock said.

Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young said release would only be considered if there is an actual case of coronavirus at the facility and that no one is being freed now.

Police could also issue tickets instead of putting people in jail on some low-level offenses.

Behinds-the-scenes events will continue, including depositions and motions.

For juries, people in high-risk categories — the elderly and those with serious illnesses or suppressed immune systems — can call the jury clerk to seek deferment or exclusion.

Officials are reducing the number of people who are called in for jury duty. For those called, chairs will be separated by 6 feet. instead of 200 potential jurors each Monday, the number will be between 75 and 80. More pools may be called in on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The court will also use video where possible, but criminal courts are limited because defendants have a right to face witnesses and accusers in person.

“You’re not going to try a murder case and not have the defendant sitting there or not have the witnesses there or not have the jury there,” Trusock said

>>Online: Kent County 17th Circuit Court

The Family Division is also making changes, according to Judge Kathleen Feeney.

“We have a huge influx of people every Friday morning for motions in the Family Division,” said Feeney, who estimates hundreds of people flood the courthouse on Fridays. “People come in and they want to file for divorce or change their parenting time or their child support or they want to challenge a (personal protection order).”

People should be contacted by the Family Court if their hearing is adjourned or rescheduled.

There will no longer be the mass motions days for Family Court. Instead, they will be staggered over time. The Family Division will use remote and conference calls where possible for things like home visits and some kinds of testimony.

“If you’re not sure, we’ll have signs posted in the courthouse or you should have received a call already,” Feeney said. “We don’t want people to come in if they’re sick, If you have flu-like symptoms or you have a cold, we don’t want you to come in. Don’t bring people who are your supporters, leave them at home.”

The message from the judges: If you don’t have to be at court, don’t go there.

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