FORT WALTON BEACH — Two Okaloosa County defense attorneys have called upon the First Judicial Circuit’s chief judge to take immediate steps to prevent lawyers and their clients from exposure to coronavirus.
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Among the measures Glenn Swiatek and Stephen Cobb are calling for is the postponement of all sentencing hearings involving incarceration "until after the coronavirus threat passes."
Chief Judge John Miller said the threat the virus poses is being taken seriously at the state and circuit levels, and all suggestions for mitigating the disease’s opportunity to spread are being carefully considered.
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"Right now all options are on the table," Miller said. "Where exactly this is going to lead us I don’t know. This is new territory for all of us."
Miller said the First Judicial Circuit is working closely with the Office of State Court Administrators, the body which, along with the Supreme Court, oversees all facets of the State Court system.
At this point in time, the courts are focused on gathering information. But if the coronavirus outbreak reaches a point that the general public faces a very real risk of exposure, "we’re going to have to make some policy decisions," Miller said.
Among the "safeguard measures" Swiatek suggests should be implemented immediately is doing away with face-to-face pre-trial conferences and calendar status calls by handling those court functions via email.
"That is doable and should have been done years ago for judicial economy," he said. "You don’t need 30 attorneys sitting around a courtroom to get a continuance."
Miller said one of his greatest concerns if the coronavirus spreads is the thought of bringing 50 to 100 potential jurors into the same room to undergo the selection process.
"We’ll do whatever we can do to protect the public. It could get so bad we suspend operations or bring in face masks," he said. "I’m not ruling out any options."
In his letter, Swiatek called local jails and state prisons "a breeding ground for a disaster that could negatively affect our substantial incarcerated jail and prison populations."
"Attorneys and the legal community who visit incarcerated clients will also be placed at high risk for exposure to the virus," the letter said.
The letter suggests jails and prisons start using video conferencing to allow lawyers and their incarcerated clients to speak to one another without being in the same close space.
Video conferencing has been viewed with some skepticism due to concerns over maintaining attorney-client privilege. Swiatek said he believes meetings could be held via computer to resolve the issue.
The letter suggested that all current inmates be tested for coronavirus and that any incoming inmates be tested as well.
For jail administrators though, testing all inmates or anyone being admitted isn’t necessarily going to prevent an outbreak. Not everyone who has tested positive for coronavirus immediately displays symptoms, said Okaloosa County Corrections Director Eric Esmond.
Esmond said that since Jan. 29, the Okaloosa County Jail has been doing medical screening related to the coronavirus, and if a person does arrive at the jail showing symptoms, staff reserve the right to divert that person the an emergency room for treatment.
An influenza protocol already established at the jail includes a quarantine protocol, and corrections personnel screen for inmates likely to be more susceptible in the case of an outbreak, he said.
Older inmates, those with respiratory diseases or pre-existing conditions that could make them more vulnerable to a virus are at the top of the tiered protocol, Esmond said. Pregnant inmates also are included in the tier-one group.
The jail tries to protect its correctional officers by offering free flu shots each year, Esmond said, and since late January, hand sanitizer has been made readily available. Masks are on hand in the event an active infection is discovered.
While the jail’s population of 690 is over capacity, the present numbers are, "relatively speaking," manageable, Esmond said.
Swiatek said local law enforcement could assist in the effort to prevent a disease outbreak by ending the practice of arresting people "who have no business being in jail."
"Why are they arresting kids for drinking on the beach? Why are they carting kids off to jail?" he asked. "It’s a political stunt. I have never had a case where someone from Fort Walton Beach was arrested for having alcohol on the beach."
The Walton County Jail, run by the Sheriff’s Office, has also taken steps to prevent the spread of disease.
Jail staff limit face-to-face contact through video visitation, spokeswoman Corey Dobridnia said in an email.
"This assists in preventing exposure between visitors and inmates," she said.
Attorneys are also provided with video visitation access and/or attorney rooms which are no-contact rooms outfitted with Plexiglas.
The jail is implementing enhanced screening during the booking process to assess risk factors prior to an inmate's formal admission into the jail.
A Standard Operating Procedure is in place to address medical epidemics.
"We are abiding by this as well as all CDC guidelines," Dobridnia said.
The jail also continues to implement all general prevention guidelines as recommended by the CDC and Florida Department of Health.