Putnam County courts are only handling essential operations after an administrative order from the Florida Supreme Court and the Seventh Judicial Circuit last week.
Courts in Putnam County are only proceeding with “mission critical” cases. These include but are not limited to first appearances, bond hearings, juvenile cases and family law. The change to operations began March 17.
Florida Chief Justice Charles Canady issued an order Tuesday suspending jury trials statewide through April 17.
“I ask that the public understand that these limitations are in place for everyone’s protection, including our staff,” said Tim Smith, Putnam County clerk of courts. “We are working as diligently and as safely as we can to still serve the public.”
In addition to limiting the amount of cases, local courts are also restricting who can attend in-person proceedings. According to Raul Zambrano, chief judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit of Florida, entry to the courts will be limited to media, attorneys, witnesses, parties involved in a lawsuit, and essential personnel.
“Protecting the health and well-being of the public, court staff and judges is of paramount concern,” said Mark Weinberg, Seventh Judicial Circuit court administrator.
Smith said most cases in the county are being handled virtually. He said conducting proceedings online enables the courts to continue operating without having to transport prisoners and potentially spread coronavirus.
“In Putnam County, we have fortunately made sure to implement all of the latest technology,” Smith said. “Any interaction that you need to do with the clerk’s office in most cases is available online.”
Zambrano said anybody who was previously exposed to coronavirus or is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 will not be allowed to enter any court in the county without his written permission. He also said records requests and submissions can be done on the phone or through email.
Smith said Putnam County has been maintaining legal files online for years and is prepared to operate during this pandemic as a result.
The longtime clerk said he is worried if the courts continue with their current restrictions past April 6, though. He said there is a backlog of cases that need to be addressed once the courts resume with normal operations.
“A lot of the court processes have certain time restrictions,” Smith said. “However, in the Supreme Court order, it also addressed those time issues and also extended timeframe for those cases. A defendant can’t be penalized because there wasn’t a court hearing. Once this normalizes, there will be a backlog, and everybody will be working diligently to get those cases moved along as quickly as possible.”