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Wayne County, Detroit courts tighten virus restrictions

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

The chief judge of Wayne County Circuit Court ordered Wednesday that all hearings on criminal cases be conducted remotely, while Detroit's 36th District Court put felony exams and criminal misdemeanor cases on hold in response to the growing coronavirus outbreak.

"Until further notice all Third Circuit Court Criminal Division matters will be heard remotely," Judge Timothy Kenny ordered. "No attorneys shall appear at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice for hearings that include cases involving defendants in custody,  arraignments on the information, probation violation warrant arraignments, sentencing and emergency bond motions."

Kenny told The News he issued Wednesday's order to comply with emergency directives from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Supreme Court and reduce public exposure to the virus.

"It's the best way to keep people safe and comply with the directives," he said. 

Also on Wednesday, the chief judge of 36th District Court announced the immediate suspension of felony exam and criminal misdemeanor dockets due to COVID-19.

Judge William McConico said all scheduled matters will be adjourned to a later date and that all parties will be "properly notified."

McConico said beginning April 1, all 36th District Court hearings and matters will be conducted via Zoom, "until further notice." He said he was acting to "protect as many individuals as possible from the spread of COVID-19 and to further assist and support our state and city government."

The 36th District courthouse was disinfected after officials learned an attorney who had visited the facility March 16 tested positive for the virus.

McConico said despite the new restrictions, bond hearings for defendants who are in custody will continue remotely. 

“We understand the effects that this may have on a person waiting in jail to appear in court, but we want to ensure that all liberties are protected — one being representation," he said. 

“Calls are coming in every day from attorneys and prosecutors requesting adjournments because of COVID-19," the judge said.

Only essential operations are being conducted at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice and the civil division of Wayne County Circuit Court, housed in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

In the circuit court, one judge in the civil division is hearing emergency matters on a rotational basis, while at Frank Murphy, four judges are reporting to hear criminal matters, said Kenny.

Wednesday's announcement comes on the heels of Kenny's order to adjourn hearings Monday and Tuesday while the building underwent a "deep cleaning" following the revelation that a defense attorney had tested positive for COVID-19 and potentially exposed the public, court staff and other attorneys to the virus.

The possible exposure was reported to Kenny by Lillian Diallo, vice president of the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association. The attorney in question was at the courthouse throughout the week of March 9, according to a statement from the court earlier this week.

The criminal division of Wayne County Circuit Court was among the first courts to modify its operations March 12 as COVID-19 began to spread across the country and into Michigan.

Kenny encouraged  judges, in some cases, to hold hearings, conferences and other proceedings remotely, "using technology whenever possible" and to adjourn hearings involving ill or medically vulnerable individuals, attorneys, jurors or "necessary" witnesses if they are ill.