S.D. courts delay trials, excuse no-shows, reduce jail population


RAPID CITY – South Dakota courts are delaying trials, excusing no-shows, attempting to reduce jail populations and taking other measures to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and White House have recommended people avoid crowds and close contact with others, which are often impossible to do in crowded courtrooms and jails housing hundreds of people.

The state’s seven judicial circuits have all released detailed COVID-19 procedures after the South Dakota Supreme Court declared a judicial emergency on March 13 and ordered presiding judges to create such policies.

“Guidance from public health officials suggests that one of the most effective ways to protect against the spread of this disease is to limit exposure, particular to persons at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illness,” Chief Justice David Gilbertson wrote in his order.

“During this time, it may become necessary for courts in counties across the state of South Dakota to close, relocate or otherwise significantly modify their regular operations,” he said.

Black Hills courts

The Seventh Circuit Court – which includes Pennington, Custer, Fall River and Oglala Lakota counties – is taking several steps that will help release people from jail while also preventing new bookings.

Jailed defendants’ cases will be prioritized, and inmates who are quarantined within jail must appear via video conference, Judge Craig Pfeifle wrote in his order.

The Jail Population Review Team must review bond for all non-violent offenders and recommend release conditions for judges.

Defendants who don’t appear in court are sometimes arrested and jailed, but Pfeifle said those who fail to show up for misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges will be excused “for public health.”

People on probation are also sometimes jailed or required to appear in court for violating conditions. But probation officers can now consider delaying sanctions, Pfeifle wrote. Officers can also find ways to communicate and monitor sobriety beyond in-person visits.

Anyone with a court date who is part of an at-risk population, has coronavirus symptoms or has been exposed to the virus should call the clerk of courts to reschedule, the circuit said in an earlier news release.

People who need to fill out paperwork or pay fines should consider using online resources at ujs.sd.gov. Those who need to visit the courthouse should try to stay away from others.

Pfeifle also delayed all civil trials and criminal trials for non-jailed defendants for at least 30 days. Trials for jailed defendants will continue unless  they test positive for COVID-19.

Jurors who are part of an at-risk population, self-quarantining or have coronavirus symptoms will be excused from service, and the court will make sure jurors sit at a distance from each other during trial.

DUI, drug and other specialty courts are allowed to make their own decisions on whether they delay court meetings and limit in-person visits outside of court.

Other courts

The Fourth Circuit Court that oversees eight counties including Butte, Lawrence and Meade in the Northern Hills area is encouraging all hearings to be conducted by video and phone if allowed under the law.

The court is following the same trial and probation rules as the Seventh Circuit Court and encouraging social distancing and reducing spectators in courtrooms.

The largest circuit in the state, the Second Circuit Court which oversees Minnehaha and Lincoln counties, is following the same probation rules as the two other courts. People who are required to test at 24/7 drug and alcohol centers may be allowed to be tested through other means or be removed from testing altogether.

Anyone who is under the age of 10, traveled to high-risk countries, are self-quarantining, have been diagnosed with or has symptoms of COVID-19, or have been exposed to others with the virus can’t enter the court.

Defendants, lawyers, probationers and jurors who fall into those categories or are part of a high-risk population should contact their attorneys, judges/court administration, court services or the jury manager, respectively.

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