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Nevada court trials on hold: ‘We’re taking it day by day’

Updated March 16, 2020 - 6:52 pm

All federal court trials in Las Vegas and Reno have been continued until April 10 as part of efforts to contain the coronavirus spread.

Chief U.S. District Judge Miranda Du said in a statement Monday that naturalization ceremonies through March also have been postponed.

There are federal courts and bankruptcy courts in both Las Vegas and Reno.

The federal action comes after dramatic restrictions at the Regional Justice Center took effect on Monday in Las Vegas. Criminal arraignments continued in a basement courtroom, but other action slowed down.

Chief District Judge Linda Marie Bell late Friday temporarily suspended all civil and criminal trials scheduled for the next 30 days, along with jury selection. In her administrative order, Bell also ordered that all scheduled, nonessential court hearings should be conducted by video or telephonic means or rescheduled.

Monday morning, signs were posted at the main entrance to the Regional Justice Center barring people from entering the courthouse if they had the virus, were feeling sick, or had been to a country overseas with a coronavirus outbreak.

Some marshals and members of the public were wearing protective masks and some judges tried to follow the six-foot social distance rule recommended by health experts inside their courtrooms.

But it was business as usual for criminal arraignments. There, lawyers were lined up shoulder-to-shoulder on a wooden bench as their clients, mostly inmates, sat in chains behind a large glass window waiting for their cases to be called.

“Right now, we’re just taking it day by day,” said Mary Ann Price, the public information officer for Clark County courts.

By 2 p.m. Monday, more than 240 people called the 702-455-4472 hotline for help rescheduling court appearances, Price said. More than a half-dozen court staff were manning phone lines.

In an effort to achieve social distancing goals, Bell issued another administrative order Monday barring all “in-person” gatherings or meetings at the courthouse to discuss court business.

“Necessary meetings should be conducted by telephone, teleconference, video-conference or email,” she wrote.

Bell issued another order to reduce direct contact with the public at several services offered at Family Court, 601 N. Pecos Rd. Those services include the Family Law Self-Help Center, the Family Mediation Center and the Court Appointed Special Advocate Program.

Chief Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Suzan Baucum, who was wearing white protective gloves at the Regional Justice Center, put out an order announcing restrictions in Justice Court, which occupies several floors.

Following Bell’s lead, Baucum also suspended all civil and criminal trials scheduled for the next 30 days and halted jury selection. Criminal, out-of-custody hearings, except for preliminary hearings, also will be continued for 60 days.

Baucum also ordered nonessential Justice Court hearings to be conducted by video or over the telephone. Small claims trials and hearings are considered nonessential, she said.

All pre-trial matters in traffic cases are being suspended for 60 days, according to the judge’s order.

At Las Vegas Municipal Court, Chief Judge Cynthia Leung issued an order Monday continuing criminal and traffic trials scheduled over the next month for 45 days if the defendants are out of custody.

All arraignments scheduled during that period will be put on hold for 30 days, and marshals will not transport jailed defendants to court for 30 days. The court will make an effort to conduct trials and pretrial hearings for defendants in custody through telecommunication and video conferencing, Leung wrote.

Henderson Chief Justice of the Peace Sam Bateman said the outlying court will continue to conduct hearings for in-custody defendants, while hearings for defendants out of custody will be continued at least 30 days.

Most civil hearings also will be continued or accommodated by telephone or video conferencing, the judge said

Some defense lawyers predicted more changes could be coming to the Regional Justice Center.

“If everything else is closed, there’s no reason for this building to remain open,” said Dustin Marcello, a candidate for district judge. “I’m pretty sure the courthouse will be in a full shut-down mode by next week.”

Attorney John Parris noted uneasiness inside the 17-story building, despite fewer people than most weekdays.

“We just have to get through the tension and the stress,” Parris said. “Going to court is inherently stressful. So now we’re adding an extra layer of anxiety onto something that’s already difficult for people.”

Defense lawyer Michael Sanft added: “The problem is that this is such uncharted territory. And a lot of it is really out of the control of the attorneys…There’s no uniform understanding of how we’re going to handle it.”

Criminal defense attorney Ryan Helmick said that he attended arraignment hearings Monday morning.

In recent days, he said he has visited with clients in custody at the Clark County Detention Center through video to tell them that trials and many hearings have been postponed.

The virus, he said, “is slowing the process of justice down temporarily. What I’m doing, meanwhile, is preparing for my cases. it’s giving me more time to interview witnesses, to read some new books on the law, to research and learn and get my cases ready for when they do go to trial.”

Private investigator Robert Lawson said the outbreak has minimized face-to-face interviews, while some criminal defendants want to push their cases through the court system.

“They have their trial upcoming, they’ve been in custody for a while, and they just want to get it over with,” Lawson said. “I think that’s going to be frustrating to them.”

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter. Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter. Bell

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