Oakland Circuit Court implements coronavirus restrictions

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Wide-ranging changes took place Tuesday in Oakland County Circuit Court, as officials, attorneys and others adjusted to the reality of the coronavirus outbreak.

Tuesday, all but a few of the 24 courtrooms were empty, devoid of juries, attorneys, witnesses, defendants, litigants and others impacted by the legal process in some way.

A large 60-by-30 foot American flag draped on the façade of the west wing of the Oakland County Circuit Court building on Friday, July 1, 2016, in Pontiac.

Officials with the court, which handles about 7,000 civil and 4,000 criminal cases each year, implemented emergency procedures for the next 30 days in response to public health concerns and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order limiting gatherings to 50 people or less.

“The parking lot was the emptiest I have ever seen it,” said Court Administrator Kevin Oeffner. “More than 2,500 people access the county building for court, the clerk’s office and treasurer’s office,” he said. “900 people are employed here. Today everyone remarked how strange it was to have empty hallways.”

It’s anyone’s guess on how long that will remain, Oeffner said, but the following is a breakdown of how the court will provide some essential services:

For criminal cases, the court will remain open only for emergency bond motions and arraignments on bench warrants and probation violations. Arraignments will be done by mail for the next 30 days and all jury trials scheduled during that period will be adjourned.

Criminal trials underway as of March 16 will continue. Sentencing hearings for in-custody defendants will be held by video unless the defense objects, in which case they will be adjourned.

All criminal calls through March 31 will be adjourned

For juvenile cases, the court will be open for preliminary hearings for all delinquency and child protective proceedings, emergency removal hearings for child protection, and in-custody designated and adult court waiver arraignments.

All trials will be adjourned for 30 days.

For domestic relations cases, the court will remain open for divorce, custody and parenting time matters and immediate threat of harm to children. All family division motion calls will be adjourned through March 31. Emergency motions can be conducted by telephone when possible.

For friend of the court matters, early intervention conferences will be adjourned or handled by phone if possible. Custody and parenting time investigations and disputes will be addressed through telephone interviews only.

For personal protection orders, hearings on a request for entry will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

In civil cases, requests for emergency show cause and injunctive orders will be reviewed by the assigned judge or the judge on call, with the same procedure for business court emergencies.

Civil jury or bench trials will be adjourned for 30 days or until further notice.

The chief judge will hear all infectious disease petitions brought by the Oakland County Health Department.

Public viewing of video court records will be suspended for 30 days or until further notice.

All matters referenced that will continue per current practice will be handled by video or conferencing if practical.

Oeffner said the temporary rules were somewhat fashioned through courthouse brainstorming on how legal matters would be handled in the event that part of the building was damaged by storm, tornado, fire, or subject to a major power outage.

"The idea this time is to limit the potential exposure to the virus by anyone who has to come to the courthouse and yet still take care of business," said Oeffner. "Phone and video conferences are tools, but in many cases adjournments is the best solution.

"Four trials that were scheduled to start Monday were adjourned — including one murder case in which the defense attorney requested the adjournment because of concerns that she, witnesses and even her client might be unnecessarily exposed (to the virus) in court," he said.

Other actions in Oakland County

Two other initiatives were announced Tuesday aimed at reducing inconvenience during the coronavirus emergency.

Oakland County Executive David Coulter said customers who use the county’s online services to pay for parking tickets, dog licenses, legal documents or delinquent property taxes will not incur a credit card or electronic check fee beginning next week.

Coulter said the county would waive fees for online transactions to encourage residents and customers to use those services rather than visit a county office to make a payment in person.

The initial waiver period is March 25 through April 30.

In Royal Oak, the city is offering free 30-minute parking at all on-street meters effective immediately to encourage curb-side pickup at restaurants. Parking garages are free for two hours when you arrive before 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Parking lots remain unchanged and parking throughout the city’s downtown is free all day on Sundays.


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