Courts are gradually increasing in-person court operations and resuming more criminal proceedings after more than six months of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey has lifted its stay on the empanelment of new grand juries in all three vicinages of New Jersey, and new grand juries are anticipated to begin convening this fall. The stay on criminal jury trials and trial jury empanelment has been continued through January 4, 2021. Likewise the 30-day period in which cases charged by complaint must be indicted or proceed by way of information has been extended through January 4, 2021. The delay in proceedings from March 16, 2020, through January 4, 2021, is deemed “excludable time” for purposes of the Speedy Trial Act.
Many criminal proceedings will continue to occur remotely with the consent of the Defendant and the Government, including detention hearings, initial appearances, preliminary hearings, waivers of indictment, arraignments, probation and supervised release revocations, pretrial release revocations, guilty pleas, sentencings, and federal juvenile delinquency matters. If the Defendant or Government do not consent to proceed remotely, individual judges have the discretion to proceed in person.
In-person criminal trials are resuming in Bergen, Atlantic, Cumberland, Mercer, and Passaic counties, by Order of the Supreme Court of New Jersey in the latest of a series of eight Omnibus Orders on Court Operations since the COVID pandemic hit New Jersey. The courts estimate that more than 2,500 defendants who have been indicted are being detained while awaiting trial, and more than 9,000 civil cases are ready and awaiting trial. Trials will resume beginning with criminal cases involving single defendants who are being detained until trial.
Trial jury selection is being conducted in a “hybrid” manner, remotely for initial voir dire and in person for follow-up questioning and peremptory challenges. It is widely expected that the Court will order criminal jury trials to expand to all vicinages in coming months.
Remote Grand Juries will convene statewide beginning December 1, 2020, after a Pilot Program in remote Grand Juries expanded to Bergen, Mercer, and Atlantic counties and State Grand Juries in Trenton. No date has been announced for when Grand Juries will resume in- person in any vicinage.
The Court has deemed the period through October 11, 2020, as “excludable time” for purposes of speedy trial rights.
Court administrative operations are moving to “Phase 2.5,” which foresees a maximum of 25% of judges and administrative staff to be working on-site in court facilities. This level of in-person staffing is an interim stage between Phase 2 (10%-15% in person) and Phase 3 (50%-75% in person). No date has been set for Phase 3.
Municipal Courts continue to operate primarily remotely, although courts are authorized to proceed in person in certain matters, such as trials of DWI charges and “cases involving a consequence of magnitude.”