Local 10 News got exclusive tours of the circuit courts in Miami-Dade and Broward counties as they prepare to resume in-person trials.
The Eleventh Judicial Circuit in Miami-Dade County, the largest circuit in Florida, is getting ready to resume in-person jury trials next month.
Temperature screenings and social distancing measures will be in place among the new safety measures, part of a “choreographed dance,” Eleventh Circuit Judge Andrea Wolfson says.
“The jurors are going to be greeted at least one, if not two, bailiffs,” she says, before being escorted to an elevator limited to two at a time.
“We are going to go through physical jury selection in this room so they can be socially distanced appropriately,” Wolfson says. “And you can see there is plexiglass between the judge and everyone else.”
Courtrooms are also reconfigured. Jurors will be in a larger seating area rather than the traditional juror box to allow more space.
A camera will give the public a window inside — via livestream.
During the pandemic, as courts moved to virtual hearings, hallways once brimming and buzzing with people sat eerily quiet. As they get ready to tip-toe back into in-person jury trials, the focus remains on safety.
Eleventh Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto says the county has been air-scrubbing each courtroom and that the plan calls for a maximum of three juries on a staggered schedule.
“We obviously thought it was important to have experts leading us along to make sure we can keep the jurors safe, have the environment be safe, the jurors, the lawyers, the judges, the witnesses — everyone who comes into the courthouse can be safe,” Wolfson says.
WATCH A FULL INTERVIEW WITH SOTO BELOW:
Similar measures in Broward
From hand sanitation stations to temperature checks at the entrances, Chief Judge Jack Tuter explains the new normal protocols as the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit prepares to open for limited face-to-face probation violation hearings in mid-March — and as they plan ahead for the return of in-person jury trials.
“We were going to do some form of jury trials in March, but at the request of the state attorney and the public defender, we moved that to April,” Tuter says.
Socially distanced seating is set up in the jury pool room in downtown Fort Lauderdale, and a select number of courtrooms have been retrofitted with plexiglass. Jurors will flank the room to provide ample distance.
“It will probably be, as far a jury trials, a ‘soft opening’ in the sense that we don’t want to put hundreds and thousands of people in the building right away,” Tuter says. “And so we will continue to do a lot our work in civil and family and other divisions over Zoom to alleviate crowding on elevators and escalators.”
He adds: “Visitor safety is our priority when we reopen, it is every one of our discussions and in every one of our plans when we do get that building back functioning.”
WATCH OUR TOUR OF THE COURT FACILITY IN FORT LAUDERDALE:
March 12, 2020: Eleventh Judicial Circuit decides to close its courthouse except for critical matters.
March 13, 2020: In-Person jury trials suspended around the state to protect the health of participants and the public from COVID-19.
October 2020-December 2020: Eleventh Judicial Circuit re-opens to in-person jury trials, but no jury trials are scheduled during that time. “We did open in October but nobody set their case for trial,” explained Eleventh Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto. “Most cases settled once they learned of a trial date so nothing went. The [COVID-19] numbers were a little worse than they are now, so people were a little hesitant. So even though we were open for jury trials none were tried. Of course, Zoom hearings were going on all that time, so business was going forward, but the actual jury trial was not happening.”
January 2021: Eleventh Circuit jury trial suspension extended through Feb. 28
February 18, 2021: Florida’s Chief Justice authorizes some remote criminal jury trials. “If you don’t want to do it in person and if the defendant and the defense agree, and the state agrees, they can have a trial over Zoom,” Soto said.
March 1, 2021: In-person jury trials set to resume in Miami-Dade with new protocols in place to include temperature screenings, social distancing, and visitors restricted to trial participants. “All the protocols and procedures that we have instituted we will make sure that everyone is safe. People need to have their cases resolved, there are inmates in custody that need to have their trial, and so we feel under the circumstances, under the guidance of the CDC and the [medical] experts that have kindly given up their time we can open to the jury trials now in March again,” Soto said. “With all the protocol and procedures that we have instituted we will make sure that everyone is safe.”
March 1, 2021: The first in-person jury trials in civil court will begin in Miami-Dade. Three have been scheduled for this week.
March 8, 2021: The first in-person jury trial on the calendar in the criminal division.
March 15, 2021: Limited face-to-face hearings on felony violations of probation will resume at the downtown Fort Lauderdale courthouse. “The Circuit will be utilizing four courtrooms in the North Tower for violations of probation hearings, with the room numbers to be announced in the near future,” a court spokesperson says.
April 2021: Seventeenth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge anticipates a “soft opening” of in-person jury trials with new protocols in place to include temperature screenings and social distancing.
By the numbers
8: Courtrooms in Fort Lauderdale being retrofitting with plexiglass — four in the West Tower and four in the North Tower. The Chief Judge said retrofitting additional courtrooms will depend on COVID--19 case numbers over the next couple of months.
Undecided: How many people will be allowed in the Fort Lauderdale courtrooms once in-person jury trials resume. Under consideration is whether to limit visitors to a small number of family members, or whether to restrict in-person courtroom proceedings to trial participants and allow family members.
250,000+: Virtual hearings held by the Seventeenth Circuit since in-person hearings were suspendes. “We are not significantly behind in any divisions,” Tuter said. “The only thing we are behind in, like almost every other circuit, is jury trials in the criminal division, and I think once we get the courts open where we start conducting jury trials those cases will start to plea like they did before we closed and we will be able to catch up in not too distance a period of time.” He said where they may have issues catching up are complex trials like murder trials, and “we have to get the Nikolas Cruz case started.”
346,805: Virtual hearings heard in Miami-Dade, including criminal, civil, probate, family court, and domestic violence since March 16, 2020. “I think people should know the courts haven’t closed, that the courthouse, corrections, the probation office, the court, we have been open and your lawyers can file pleadings and can proceed virtually and so can you,” Soto said. “Even pro se litigants, people who are self-represented, you can file electronically, you can get your case on a calendar, so please don’t feel like the courts are closed and if you have any issue with that please call my office or the trial court administrator’s office and we will help you get your trial date.”
50: The panel of jurors each Judge will receive in Miami-Dade. Eleventh Court Judge Andrea Wolfson explained jurors’ questionnaires will now be submitted electronically to be reviewed by the judge and lawyers. “Then maybe bring in like 35 jurors here to actually physically come into the building,” she said.
3: Maximum number of juries that will be allowed on a staggered schedule, per Soto. “There will be a courtroom just for them to socially distance at breaks,” she said, “and the lawyers will also have a courtroom just for them.”
3: Courtrooms in Miami-Dade’s civil court that have been reconfigured for the return of in-person jury trials.
1: Courtrooms in Miami-Dade’s criminal division and family court that have been reconfigured for the return of in-person jury trials.