Since March of 2020, courts around the country have essentially shut down. In some parts of the country, the most fundamental liberties are being tossed aside in an effort to protect the public from the dangers of the Coronavirus pandemic. But what does this actually mean for everyday Americans here in southern Illinois? What can people do when the courthouses are closing their doors to justice? At Crossroad Legal, we are devoted to the cause of justice, and this often means speaking out against abuses by companies and our own government. Here is what every Illinoisan should know about jury trials in the age of COVID-19.
Supreme Court Suspends Jury Trials, Then it Doesn't
In early March, the Illinois Supreme Court issued an executive order suspending the right to jury trials in all civil and criminal cases. For a comprehensive listing of all orders that have been issued by the state's high court, as well as all county courts in the state, GO HERE. The order, along with all follow-up orders from the Supreme Court and county courts, essentially granted judges the right to suspend jury trials due to the pandemic. While this may sound great in theory, because it likely does reduce the chances of someone contracting the virus while performing jury duty, it comes at a high price to liberty. In June, many courts began holding trials again, only to now stop yet again. Indeed, it has been a moving target all year for trial lawyers in our state.
Right to Speedy Trial in Serious Jeopardy
While many judges and politicians may want to dispute this, the fact is that once the government strips a fundamental liberty from the people once, it learns how easily it can do it again in the future. The right to a speedy trial is etched into our U.S. Constitution, as well as being codified by Illinois law in the Illinois Speedy Trial Act, 725 ILCS 5/103-5, which states that:
Every person in custody in this State for an alleged offense shall be tried by the court having jurisdiction within 120 days from the date he or she was taken into custody…
There are a few limited exceptions, but in general, if someone is accused of a crime and is kept in custody, the government has just 120 days to bring them to trial. Under the Supreme Court orders this year, that basic Constitutional and statutory right has been eliminated for thousands of detained inmates sitting in county jails around Illinois. People remain held with excessively high bond amounts, effectively being detained until they either (a) confess to a crime regardless of guilt or until a judge decides it is safe to proceed with trials. This could easily mean that innocent people are sitting in police custody, held without any hope of release or trial in sight. It is our prediction that judges throughout the state will continue this suspension of jury trials, not just until the state begins telling them they are permitted to move forward, but until they are expressly forced to do so. So long as the discretion is in the hands of local trial judges, there will be inconsistent outcomes from one county to another, and many courts will remain inaccessible to the public long after COVID-19 ceases to present a real threat to the public.
One can imagine defendants pleading guilty in exchange for time with family or a speedy release from custody, pending a later sentencing date. People are risking their lives by sitting in custody. Therefore, it begs the question, is it really a voluntary plea of guilt if a person is solely doing it because his or her life is in danger sitting in a jail without any right to trial. This is precisely the harm our founding fathers sought to avoid when the right to a speedy trial was put into our Constitution.
Final Parting Thoughts
It's not just criminal trials that are suspended. Throughout the state, personal injury attorneys are facing overwhelming difficulties moving cases forward to settlement, mediation, or trial, because judges are not prioritizing civil cases, when there is a backlog of criminal cases with inmates sitting in custody awaiting trial. Rest assured that when the pandemic eases and trials resume, there will be a complete bombarding of the court system with claims that have been withheld or suspended for the better part of a year or more.
At Crossroad Legal, our office is committed to helping injury victims recover compensation despite a worldwide pandemic. We are further committed to helping those accused of crimes protect their basic liberties, especially in this challenging time. If you are facing criminal charges, make an appointment to meet with an attorney who gets it. We aren't afraid to speak up, and we love helping people fight for their freedom. Likewise, as a skilled team of professionals, we stand ready to help with your civil claims for injuries as well. So, don't just think about taking action; make the call. (618) 515-5555. Call 24/7 to speak with a live person and begin the process of getting the legal help that you deserve.