How The Coronavirus Will Affect the Criminal Justice System & Defendants’ Rights
There is no question that the coronavirus has completely changed criminal charges and our criminal justice system, for that matter, from Florida state attorneys calling for the release of inmates to avoid the virus spreading, to Florida prisons now being closed to new inmates due to threats posed by the virus, to criminal charges being greatly reduced because felony cases cannot be charged by grand juries (a constitutional requirement) due to concerns over exposure to the virus.
Yet perhaps of most concern are the civil rights of criminal defendants that hang in the balance. Many have already been negatively affected; for example:
- Rights enumerated in the Speedy Trial Act have been suspended, meaning that defendants will have to wait an indefinite amount of time to exercise their right to a jury trial
- For a number of district courts, all court appearances have been adjourned, which means that defendants due to be released will face significant delay
- Inmates in general are suspected to be at risk of the virus spreading, especially those who are older or have underlying health issues, all while being subjected to poor medical care
- The Federal Bureau of Prisons has restricted in-person legal visits for all inmates and their attorneys, denying their Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel
Federal Department of Justice Makes Drastic Request to Suspend Constitutional Rights
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice also recently asked Congress to grant it a number of new powers in the wake of the coronavirus emergency, including the ability to detain defendants indefinitely without trial. Specifically, the department suggested that the US attorney general be able to ask the chief judge of any district court to halt court proceedings whenever a district court has been partially or fully closed due to an emergency or natural disaster and allow judges to pause any rules of procedure and statutes at every stage of the judicial process, including pre-arrest, post-arrest, pre-trial, and post-trial proceedings, which would affect all criminal and juvenile proceedings. Also included in the request was a proposal to place the statute of limitations on hold for criminal investigations for a year after national emergencies end and to mandate that defendants have to appear via video conference instead of in-person without their consent.
What Defendants Can Expect Regarding the Statute of Limitations & Federal Offenses
Even with the House of Representatives blatantly pushing back on this request, there is no question that defendants should expect a number of tactics from the government when it comes to federal offenses that it may be precluded from prosecuting due to the five-year statute of limitations, including by potentially:
- Tolling agreements in order to extend limitations periods, especially for investigations that are already ongoing and publicly known
- Invoking the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act, which allows for the statute of limitations to be extended in cases involving attempts to defraud the U.S. or its agencies (although this is less likely)
- Extending the statute of limitations through individual charging decisions in specific cases where a financial institution has been affected; for example, by allowing prosecutors to be more selective about which statutes are included in an indictment and thus whether a 10 or five-year statute of limitations applies
- Issuing Executive Orders that suspend all time limits for commencing or filing any legal action, including those under a state’s criminal procedural law, through a specific date in the future
If You Are Facing Criminal Charges, It Is Crucial That You Work with The Very Best in Criminal Defense
If you are facing charges, it is now more important than ever to work with the very best in criminal and civil rights defense. Contact the Orlando criminal lawyers at The Baez Law Firm today for a free consultation to find out how we can provide you with the very best legal advice and representation.