As a response to the social distancing concerns presented by Covid-19 and the novel coronavirus, courts around Washington State have had to reconsider how they will operate until vaccines or effective treatments have been discovered. Even then, the courtroom experience for clients, attorneys, judges and staff will likely look very different. Since early March of 2020, the vast majority of out of custody criminal court hearings have been cancelled as court houses closed. Moving toward the summer months of 2020 courts across the state are beginning to re-open but what that will look like will vary dramatically from court house to court house.
Covid-19 and Washington State Courts
On February 29, 2020, Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency in Washington due to the discovery of the Covid-19 outbreak. Shortly thereafter, courts across the state began to scramble in an attempt to both conduct their daily affairs and do so in a manner that could protect those whose attendance was required. This resulted in two weeks of inconsistent approaches across jurisdictions. Ultimately, Governor Inslee instituted “stay at home” orders, closing non-essential business and prohibiting all public gatherings. The Washington State Supreme Court, citing this order, clarified how the courts in the Washington state were to operate until such public gatherings were once again permissible. The result was that, with the exception of certain in custody hearings and arraignments, all out of custody criminal matters, from pretrials, dispositions, motions and jury trials, were cancelled.
Washington Supreme Court Covid-19 Order
So as to avoid the confusion and inconsistencies inherent in individual courts adopting their own Covid-19 measures and to protect public safety, the Washington Supreme Court set up a series of guidelines and orders to remain in effect during the state’s “stay at home” orders. Effective until at least June 1, 2020, they effect criminal cases in the following ways:
- All criminal jury trials were suspended until at least July 6, 2020
- Out of custody, in person hearings, were to be reset until after June 1, 2020
- Certain status conferences, motions or agreed order not requiring in-person attendance could be held via phone or video conferencing
- Out of custody arraignment dates for cases filed up until July 3, 2020, could be delayed by 45 days from the filing of charges
- No contact orders stemming from criminal charges can be order ex parte, in the absence of the defendant, upon a finding of probable cause.
- Speedy trial expiration dates toll and all time until September 1, 2020, is an excluded period
- Bench warrants shall not issue for failing to appear for in-person hearings
Covid-19 induced changes moving forward
As Washington moves away from mandatory statewide shutdowns and stay at home orders, it is unlikely that the Washington Supreme Court will draft statewide orders encompassing every court. Instead, every court in each jurisdiction will be in charge of determining what is the best and safest way of conducting its affairs based on the individual challenges and circumstances they face at a given time. The result will be that the procedures moving forward in one jurisdiction will be significantly different than those in other areas.
What follows on the pages in this section will be an attempt to update the rules, expectations and orders of procedure for the major jurisdictions in Washington in a post “stay at home” Covid-19 environment. Because it is likely, especially in the early going, that these individual court rules will be very fluid, it would be wise to check with these courts before making an appearance so as to know what to expect.