Author Michael Noonan
Posted March 31, 2020
Jury trials and other court proceedings, as well as some arrests, have been suspended in New Jersey as the state tries to deal with the deadly coronavirus pandemic by “social distancing,” or limiting physical contact among groups of people. We have all the information you need here if you are facing criminal charges during this time.
In a March 27 statement, the Supreme Court of New Jersey says it has entered a series of orders suspending certain court proceedings and extending deadlines because of the practical impossibility of continuing court proceedings as usual during this public health crisis. New Jersey ranks second in the nation in the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19).
The N.J. Supreme Court’s order has the effect of law and includes several directives that apply to:
- Jury trials
- Grand Jury sessions
- Criminal Courts
- Civil Courts
- Family Courts
- Tax Courts
- Municipal Courts
According to the order, there will be no new civil or criminal jury trials until further notice. All current grand jury sessions, including for the State Grand Jury, are canceled as well. Grand juries hand up indictments containing criminal charges for more serious crimes to be tried in Superior Court.
Some provisions of the March 27 order reaffirm previous COVID-19-related N.J. court orders and notices. Current restrictions extend through April 26.
Individuals with cases pending in New Jersey courts should contact their attorneys or the local court to determine the disposition of their cases. You can expect court phone lines to be busy. If you have a lawyer, try to contact your attorney’s office first. If you need a lawyer, we are still offering free consultations during this time.
If you are facing criminal charges and do not have a lawyer, you need one right away to protect your rights. Coronavirus delays and disruptions in the judicial system may raise questions of fairness that have no answers at this point in time. In New Jersey, including Newark and Jersey City, Clark, Clark & Noonan, LLC offers free initial consultations. To get a legal advocate on your side, please call us at (732) 391-4062.
NJ Police Limiting Arrests, Jails Releasing Prisoners
Earlier in March, as the coronavirus pandemic grew, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal asked police and prosecutors to consider delaying filing criminal charges in some cases, such as in certain fraud investigations, where public safety is not imminently threatened. Fewer criminal cases on the court calendar would lessen the burden of cases that need to go to trial in a timely manner. The attorney general was also seeking to limit contact between police and suspects.
New Jersey’s chief justice, Stuart Rabner, signed an order March 22 authorizing the release of inmates serving certain types of sentences in county jails. The release of as many as 1,000 people from New Jersey jails is believed to be the nation’s broadest effort to address the risks of the highly contagious coronavirus spreading among people in jail and prison, The New York Times said. The order applies to those jailed for probation violations as well as to those convicted in municipal courts or sentenced in Superior Court for low-level crimes.
COVID-19 in New Jersey
New Jersey identified its first case of COVID-19, a 32-year-old man in Fort Lee in Bergen County, on March 4 and the state’s first coronavirus death, a 69-year-old man with underlying conditions, March 10, also in Bergen County.
By March 16, the number of cases surpassed 100. As of March 29, New Jersey reported 13,386 cases of COVID-19. New Jersey is responsible for roughly one in 10 cases in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus COVID-19 global tracker and NJ Spotlight’s county-by-county case tracker.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency and a public health emergency in early March to give state officials more resources to respond to the pandemic. On March 16, Murphy recommended a statewide curfew and ordered all casinos, bars, movie theaters, nightclubs, performing arts centers and gyms shut down and to remain closed until further notice. Public, private and parochial schools were closed March 18 until further notice. Murphy issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 21, directing all residents to stay at home and all nonessential retail businesses to close until further notice.
After police charged three individuals with disorderly persons offenses for holding prohibited gatherings, Attorney General Grewal reiterated that law enforcement agencies are strictly enforcing the Governor’s Executive Orders regarding COVID-19. The three people charged were holding a house party in Penns Grove and large gatherings in Lakewood, one of which was a wedding reception.
What Do Court Delays Mean for Criminal Defendants?
The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in American life. Federal and state courts throughout the nation have implemented restrictions and delays like New Jersey has.
Unfortunately, actions required for public health and safety can have unintended consequences that are damaging, such as the effect closings have had on the economy. But closings within the judicial system may impinge on an individual’s rights.
“(W)hile closing courtrooms and halting jury duty makes sense for public health reasons, some legal experts warn the delays could create an overwhelming backlog of cases and have legal ramifications since defendants are guaranteed a speedy and fair trial under the Constitution,” a Time magazine article reports. Advocates also worry that, because of delayed trials, some defendants will languish in overcrowded jails for months or years.
Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a criminal justice researcher, and Brown University sociology professor, told Time she was concerned defendants who can’t afford bail and become desperate will take plea bargains instead of waiting for their day in court.
“Imagine the fear of being arrested for a really small crime and the next thing you know, your public defender says, ‘Well, if you plead guilty, we can let you go. But if you stay and wait trial, which could be weeks or months or unknown, then you’d have to wait in the jail with a pandemic,” Van Cleve said.
Experienced N.J. Criminal Defense Lawyers Here to Help
If you have questions about your pending criminal charges in New Jersey during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, contact Clark, Clark, & Noonan, LLC, in Wall Township if you do not already have a defense attorney. If you are facing criminal charges, you need experienced legal guidance in these uncertain times. We offer free initial consultations and can answer your questions. If you need representation, we won’t give up on your case — and that’s a promise.