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Coronavirus outbreak leads to slower pace at Las Vegas courthouse

Updated March 20, 2020 - 8:09 pm

With most of the Regional Justice Center vacant, all Las Vegas Justice Court cases were heard Friday in one courtroom.

One by one, jailed defendants appeared on small monitors at tables for a prosecutor and defense attorney, while a few lawyers waited for cases to be called. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, those inside courtroom 6A each kept several feet apart as the men and women were arraigned.

Those who needed to speak with clients at the Clark County Detention Center before a hearing made calls to the jail from a phone in a small side room.

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said his office has been scaled back to operate at between 25 and 33 percent capacity, with many prosecutors working on less serious cases from home.

“Because we are considered an essential service, business goes on, but not as usual,” Wolfson said.

Chief Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Suzan Baucum and Chief District Judge Linda Marie Bell have signed orders to help keep the courthouse safe from the pandemic and reduce the foot traffic in the building.

The Clark County public defender’s office also had a smaller staff working at the courthouse.

Veteran Deputy Public Defender Scott Coffee, who typically handles murder cases, was part of a group of experienced defense lawyers attempting to move quickly through a large caseload of arraignments.

“If someone demanded an in-person appearance, we would cross that bridge when we came to it,” Coffee said. “But for now, the system is working for everyone’s benefit, and they’re safe. And everyone understands.”

As part of a series of orders, Bell temporarily suspended all civil and criminal trials scheduled for a month, along with jury selection. She also ordered that all scheduled, nonessential court hearings be conducted by video or telephonic means or rescheduled.

Baucum followed Bell’s lead and ordered that all criminal in-custody hearings, except for preliminary hearings, be conducted via videoconference.

Wolfson said his office would continue to prosecute violent and dangerous criminals “no differently” through the outbreak.

“We are, generally speaking, not filing complaints in the same normal course, because we’re focusing on the higher-priority cases,” he said. “And with less resources, we have to focus on the higher-priority cases.”

Bell also ruled that grand jury proceedings should be suspended for at least a month. Grand juries meet behind closed doors and return indictments, which send cases directly to Clark County District Court. Prosecutors still can take cases to a preliminary hearing in Justice Court, where a judge decides whether there’s enough evidence to take a case to trial.

The county’s top prosecutor said he would use a preliminary hearing to take cases to the trial court level if needed while grand jury testimony was on hold.

“We are still prosecuting violent cases and/or high-priority cases — a public corruption, a sexual predator, an armed robber,” Wolfson said. “We’re respecting what we have to do to keep the public safe, to keep the employees safe, and to keep the inmates safe. So it’s not that the criminal justice system is coming to an absolute halt. We’re just prioritizing how we do things.”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

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