Crime

Skip court. Coronavirus fears mean Miami judges won’t suspend your license or jail you

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If you skip court, you won’t be ordered to jail or get your drivers license suspended.

That’s the message judges and lawyers are pushing after plenty of people showed up on Monday for Miami court hearings — despite authorities trying to limit gatherings in public spaces because of the spread of the coronavirus.

Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, who oversees traffic court, said Monday “it was surprisingly busy.”

“The message is that people don’t need to be here. They shouldn’t come and they don’t have to worry because we are going to reset all of the cases over the next couple weeks,” Leifman said Monday afternoon.

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The mounting concerns spurred Miami-Dade’s chief judge, Bertila Soto, late Monday to order the “closing all court facilities to the public except for access required for emergency or mission critical court matters.” The closure will last through March 27.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle also announced Monday that her office, working with Public Defender Carlos Martinez and judges, will “develop a process to release misdemeanor & nonviolent felons who are in custody but pose no threat to the public.”

It’s understandable that defendants would show up — skipping a court date normally ends in a bench warrant in a criminal case, and a license suspension for drivers facing traffic tickets. And with the hourly barrage of coronavirus closures hitting the news, it’s easy to understand why some thought they had to be in court.

Those who showed to the Richard E. Gersten Justice Building on Monday were greeted with notices on courtroom doors, while bailiffs tried to limit the flow of people into the courtrooms. Judges reminded people sitting in the galleries they did not have to sit close to one another.

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Miami-Dade prosecutors and assistant public defenders were working on skeleton crews to quickly reschedule hearings.

“It was a strange scene. They were just moving cases along, telling defendants to go home,” said Miami lawyer Michael Catalano, who showed up Monday with a client accused of driving drunk . “I took a towel with me and I used it to open every door, just to be careful.”

The DUI case got postponed.

If you have a court date in Miami soon, here’s what you need to know.

Hearings for newly arrested people will continue. Defendants appearing for “bond hearings” aren’t in the courthouse anyway — they appear via closed-circuit TV from the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center.

Arraignments, which generally happen 21 days after an arrest, will still happen, but only for people that are in custody. Defendants will not be brought to court from the jail. “If there is no written plea, the arraignment hearing will be reset,” Soto wrote on Monday.

All trials have also been suspended, at least until March 27. That means you don’t have to show up for jury duty.

Emergency hearings will still be held, as will hearings for restraining orders. In delinquency court, for juveniles accused of crimes, detention hearings will be handled by phone. Like the other court houses, defendants do not to be present for arraignments.

Shelter hearings — for children who need to be placed with guardians or returned to parents — will also take place as they normally do. Also continuing as normal: hearings for people facing a Baker Act, an involuntary psychological evaluation, or a Marchman Act, involuntary drug or alcohol treatment.

Also Monday, Miami-Dade Police announced a cutback on some services because of the virus outbreak. Though all lobby areas at each district building will remain open, the public may have to wait a while to get fingerprints, background checks and some police reports.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Charles Rabin contributed to this report.

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