There are challenges when representing incarcerated defendants in criminal court.
By Tricia Rado Rover, Assistant Public Defender, 4th Judicial Circuit
I still haven’t perfected taking a selfie. The angle always is just a little off — too far right or too low.
But with Zoom, I am now a pro. I know the exact book to magazine ratio needed for a good court angle with the camera on my computer.
I had not even heard of Zoom before March 13, 2020. But on that day, I purchased a license. Also on that day, our world, as we knew it, shut down.
The order from the state Supreme Court that suspended the courts because of COVID-19 took some digesting. On March 16, I was in my office, packing up my computer and trying to think of everything I’d need for the foreseeable future.
Our office was officially closed, as was the courthouse. Practicing criminal law with no courtroom or courthouse was going to be interesting.
One of the biggest hurdles was First Appearance Court, or J1. For those that don’t practice criminal law, First Appearance Court is held 365 days a year at the Duval County jail for people who have been arrested. It didn’t skip a beat because of the pandemic.
Remote first appearance isn’t ideal. We have less access to our clients. We may not be able to get contact information, which makes communication difficult. We can’t lay eyes on them to see their physical condition, injuries they may have sustained and behaviors they are exhibiting, but it does allow for all parties to do their jobs to the best of their ability and remain safe.
When the courts were up and running remotely, it became clear the new system was a work in progress.
Since we couldn’t meet clients prior to court, we couldn’t always get a phone number or email. You had to be creative about reviewing documents and forms because you couldn’t just hand a client paperwork. You had to screenshot and text.
We were able to email evidentiary videos to clients, but it wasn’t the same as being able to watch with them together.
Instead of signatures, clients would “verbally affirm” a plea form or document.
Speaking with incarcerated clients became an even harder struggle. Before the pandemic, we had the option of using our computer video system to speak to a client in jail or just going there to see them. Jail visits were suspended, so all of the lawyers in our office, all 60-plus of us in Duval County, were relying on the video system.
One of the best parts of our job at the Public Defender’s Office is interacting with people in the community, including the people we represent, the folks who work in the courthouse and our colleagues.
After the novelty of wearing comfy pants to court wore off, morale started to shift. The grind of our new practice took its toll. Not being able to walk down the hallway and ask questions or get a group of attorneys together to discuss an issue took its toll.
That last one was what really hurt. The Public Defender’s Office is full of amazing minds. Group texts sufficed, but it wasn’t the same as bumping into someone in the elevator and having a discussion about an issue or case.
Most divisions in the office did group Zoom meetings to try to recreate that. We did officewide Zoom meetings and training to try to recreate that as well.
We still are dealing with most of these issues. The courthouse and our offices are open now, but we still need to be cognizant when speaking with clients and colleagues in the hallway.
We still wear face masks in our office and in the courthouse. We can’t congregate for meetings and training.
Most of the hurdles haven’t gone away, but we have learned to adapt and overcome.
One thing hasn’t changed throughout this: Our representation of clients who have entered the criminal justice system but can’t pay for private representation remains zealous and strong.
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