About five weeks ago was when I first heard of the coronavirus. At that time, it was just a problem in China. They shut down a city where it originated and it seemed like one of those tragedies in a distant land that you read about and tell your wife, that is real unfortunate. Flash forward a few weeks later and my city, county, state, and country now call it COVID-19 (which sounds so much worse than coronavirus), it prevents you from eating out or socializing with your neighbor, and it has shut down commerce and the courts in California. Now it’s common place for me to order dinner online, pay with a credit card, and then have it delivered by a person who drops my family’s dinner at the front door like it’s a ransom payment. We are all (or supposed to be) sheltering in place, which basically means stay home with your family and don’t get within 6 feet of anyone who doesn’t share your address.
How COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Is Affecting Law
Just like all of our personal lives, the legal profession has also changed overnight. Courts are closed but for a few courtrooms which are reserved for criminal arraignments (where charges are presented, and pleas are entered) and some emergency orders (like restraining orders). Most cases were continued automatically without an appearance by a lawyer or client and lawyers are being told to stay out of the courthouse. For the first time in the 28 years I have been practicing law courthouses closed for three days during a work week. The presiding judge called those days court holidays in order to avoid the statutory and constitutional issues that would arise if it were anything but a court holiday. We no longer require anyone to attend jury duty for the foreseeable future, which means no jury trials will be conducted, for that matter there will be few if any contested matters heard in the courthouse for either criminal or civil cases until what looks like at least May (if we are lucky).
I’ve been getting three or four clients a day calling to ask, what is this going to do to my case? If you’re curious the only answer I give is, nothing for now. It’s hard to predict ultimately how the justice system handles what will be a huge backlog of cases and new cases all hitting court calendars whenever this crisis concludes (it has been announced that one day this too will end). The reality is that if new cases start entering the judicial system at even a 50% reduced pace, our local courthouses in Ventura and Santa Barbara will be overwhelmed.
There are rational arguments that with everyone staying home and the decline in the economy that we should expect that both criminal and family law cases to drastically reduce. There is some logic to that position. With people staying home and law enforcement, now charged with tasks that support health care and enforcement of government orders, it stands to reason that crime and arrests will both be significantly reduced. Fewer crimes and people to enforce the laws means a lower amount of cases in the criminal justice system.
There is some logic to family law and child custody cases declining as our economy grinds to a halt. Based on prior trends when a downturn in the economy occurs, people tend to stay together longer because economically it makes sense to ride it out. While money never conquers love it does usually conquer the lack of it. Another basic tenant of the legal business is that when money is scarce people don’t like spending it on a lawyer.
Eventually people will get out their houses and normal life will commence. With normal life comes normal amounts of crime, arrests, and couples splitting up. If my estimate is correct that we will have a 50% reduction in new cases when the courts reopens and assume regular hours our court system will be running way over capacity. The courts were overburdened before the crisis and we will soon be adding more cases without increasing the capacity to handle both the old and the new cases. There is little doubt that we will soon have an overwhelmed justice system.
If our courts are overwhelmed some tough decisions must be made. As always when speaking of the court system you start with criminal cases. Criminal cases always take precedence in the courthouse because we are a free country and when we seek to take away a person’s freedom, we have determined that to be much more significant than a divorce or fight over money. For that reason, the adjudication of civil cases always takes a back seat to the adjudication of criminal cases. My educated guess is that the civil courts will bear a great deal of the burden of this shutdown when we ultimately get going again. Judges who primarily heard civil disputes such as family law cases, or business disputes, or personal injury trials will be called upon to handle some of the criminal case backlog that we are sure to experience. I would also suspect the District Attorney’s offices in every county to think of alternative ways to resolve cases, whether it’s by dropping requests for jail time on misdemeanors or suspending the filing of new misdemeanors or looking at alternative sentencing options. I also suspect that prosecutors will take advantage of the statute of limitation filing deadlines. A misdemeanor case has to be filed within a year of the alleged commission of the misdemeanor, most felonies have to be filed within three years from the alleged commission of the crime. Typically, when the police bring in reports on a new arrest the prosecutor’s office attempts to make a filing decision within 30 to 45 days. With an overflow of cases in the courthouse expected this summer I would wager most DA’s offices will delay the filing of new misdemeanors for six to ten months, and non-violent felonies for year or more. What Is also clear is that the District Attorney’s Offices in every county on the Central Coast are going to have to triage the cases they take, file, and try.
My office has begun the process of reaching out to the District Attorney’s Offices on the Central Coast where a vast majority of cases reside and have attempted to come to some reasonable dispositions that may not have been available before this crisis. If you are thinking we are attempting to take advantage of a crisis by doing this, you have inaccurately perceived our intent. Our intention is to work with prosecutors and the courts to alleviate what will be an overwhelming burden. By working out reasonable dispositions before regular services commence, we are helping solve a problem – we are not taking advantage of a situation.
On the civil side it’s more difficult to do the same as we can on the criminal side. Civil practitioners are used to waiting for their cases to be heard, and for some, a delay in court proceedings is a welcome event (the delay not the cause of the delay; no one welcomes the reason for these delays). Think of it this way, if you were potentially going to have to pay a large sum of money to resolve a civil case, wouldn’t you want to delay that occurrence as long as possible? Unfortunately the family law and custody cases will also suffer from delays that will not be beneficial to any litigant. I always say the best thing for a client in a family law case is the conclusion of the case. Unfortunately, many family law cases are about to suffer a delayed conclusion.
Do Not Hesitate to Call Our Ventura Lawyers During this Time
As we move forward through this crisis, I encourage all current clients to reach out to us. Bamieh & De Smeth is open for business. We may not be at the desks we normally occupy but all of us are at desks somewhere at a proper social distance doing our part to protect our community. At our sides are our trusty laptops and our office phones (the joys of internet phone system are they work wherever a friendly WIFI exists). All of us are still doing our best to work a “normal” workday (well if working in your sweats and pajamas is normal – of course I’m in a suit and tie) to best serve our clients during this time. Please do not hesitate to call me or any lawyer at our firm that you are working with if you have questions. For those who have a legal issue, now is the time to call and discuss with one of our lawyers. Our virtual offices are open for any potential client to get their free phone consult. While it will be a virtual consult, you will be talking to real lawyer who has real legal knowledge. That’s virtually unbeatable. If you desire a detailed conversation about whatever legal issue is occupying your mind, please give us a call.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay calm. As always, we look forward to doing our part to serve our community, our clients, and potential clients