As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Maryland, DC, and throughout the nation, the criminal justice system continues to face unprecedented challenges. Adaptations have been made to avoid a complete halt of operations, but there is one major function the court has not been able to resume safely: jury trials.
While the vaccine provides a glimmer of hope, the rollout has hit a few snags, and it is becoming clear that we are still far away from seeing our lives—and court proceedings—return to normal.
What Is the Right to a Speedy Trial?
The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution gives criminal defendants the right to a speedy trial. While the exact timeframe is not mentioned in the Constitution, states have laid out different requirements to protect this right.
Here are the time limits established by the District of Columbia and Maryland:
- According to the D.C. Code, you should be tried within 100 days of being detained.
- Maryland law states that your trial must begin within 180 days of your first court appearance.
If you are facing criminal charges, your right to be a speedy trial within those time limits is supposed to be guaranteed.
How COVID-19 Has Delayed Trials & the Negative Effects
Jury trials during a pandemic have proved to be an obstacle for courts throughout the country. Courtrooms are not large enough to accommodate the social distancing practices that a gathering of jurors, counsel, and court staff that a jury trial requires—especially during the voir dire or jury selection process. So as the pandemic continues, jury trials have been put on hold. How are the courts allowed to delay trials if doing so violates the right to a speedy trial? A series of emergency orders, which have been pushing trial dates further back as the case levels continue to rise.
Public safety, of course, should be something that is prioritized. But we must also think about the consequences of trial delays on the criminally accused. Defendants are being held in jails as they wait for a trial date to be set, and many have been waiting well beyond the speedy trial timeframe.
As these defendants await their day in court, they become:
- More likely to contract COVID-19. Jails, including those in DC and Maryland, have become places where coronavirus outbreaks are common and devastating, putting these defendants at great risk.
- More likely to plead guilty—even for crimes they did not commit. Even before the pandemic began, a 2019 study found that defendants who were held before their trial pleaded nearly three times faster. Now that the right to a speedy trial has been taken away, many defendants feel like their best chance of getting out of jail is to accept a plea deal.
What Can Be Done?
Realistically, it may be summertime before jury trials begin again. If you have a loved one who is waiting to have his or her day in court, you are probably exploring all of the options that are available to you right now. Jury trials may not be happening now, but the courts are still open and handling other business.
The courts are still handling:
- Non-jury trials
- Dispositive motion hearings
- Bond review
- Show cause hearings
Navigating these challenging and unprecedented circumstances alone can be overwhelming. You deserve an advocate who can help you move forward favorably. At Gracia & Mintz, our Prince George’s County criminal defense attorneys fight tirelessly to protect the rights, futures, and health of the criminally accused.
While the situation may look hopeless, we are dedicated to learning the details of your case and creating strategies to get you out of jail. When you contact us for your free consultation, we can discuss the best options for you—whether that is filing a motion for release, exploring a plea agreement, or preparing for trial when it comes.
Call (301) 842-8584 to speak with a dedicated criminal defense attorney. We’re available 24/7.