Detroit-area prosecutors adjust to fighting crime amid pandemic

The Oakland County Prosecutor's Office is giving "hazard pay" to the few employees who are coming into the office as  COVID-19 cases continue to stack up across the state, threatening possible virus exposures at workplaces across Michigan.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has barred attorneys and other visitors from coming into her office at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice as part of new restrictions aimed at helping to contain the virus.

And in Macomb County, the prosecutor's office is refusing to send its assistant prosecutors into courtrooms throughout the county.

As Michigan residents and other Americans adjust to a new normal brought on by the outbreak of the potentially fatal COVID-19, prosecutors are trying to maintain normal criminal justice operations in an atmosphere of uncertainty.

"We're trying to limit everyone's exposure as much as possible," Worthy said, and to "keep everyone safe and the get the work done." 

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.

Worthy said she is having warrant requests emailed in and rotating the office staff so only a small number of people work inside the downtown Detroit office at a given time. Meetings are conducted on the phone and through other technology such as Zoom as most staff members work remotely.

Earlier this week, Chief Wayne County Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny ordered the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice closed to the public and adjourned remaining courthouse hearings and proceedings so the building could be deep cleaned. Kenny acted after learning an attorney who tested positive for coronavirus had visited the courthouse the week of March 9.

Neighboring 36th District Court, a couple of blocks from Frank Murphy, also had to undergo intensive cleaning after an attorney possibly exposed the public, court staff and other attorneys to the virus during a March 16 visit to the court.

Oakland County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Paul Walton said the office is having most prosecutors work remotely.

"They only come in when they have hearings," said Walton. "We've tried to limit the number of staff in the office at any given time."

The few staffers who are continuing to come into the office are getting paid time-and-a-half, said Walton. Others who have elected not to work can use flex time that allows them to be paid during their time off.

Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper said her office is working with some district courts to conduct matters through teleconferencing and other technology.  However, the technology has not worked in some instances, requiring an assistant prosecutor to appear in person for proceedings.

Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper

Cooper said her office also has asked the Oakland County Sheriff's Office to provide a list of all in-custody defendants so that her office can consider early release for cases of lesser offenses.

"It's something we don't have to do. It's something we're morally obligated to do," she said. "This situation is unprecedented. It requires a level of humanity."

Worthy said her office is also working to release those accused of low-level offenses from lockup.

"We are clearly aware that the safety of the public is also paramount. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been working on the issue of administrative release of prisoners non-stop," she said in a statement week.

In Macomb County, the prosecutor's office has halted sending prosecutors into courtrooms, said Derek Miller, chief of operations for Prosecutor Eric Smith, who resigned Monday.

"We are not sending prosecutors into courtrooms for the time being," said Miller. "We are strictly doing video and teleconferencing."

Miller said the office is using Zoom, Facetime and whatever technology a courtroom can accommodate.

Miller said 11 "critical" employees are handling staffing needs at the prosecutor's office on a rotational basis and most employees are working remotely. He said the office is prepared to respond to emergency cases such as a threat to a victim of violence.

Macomb County's office is facing the additional disruption from charges that were filed last week against Smith and Miller, who are accused of participating in a scheme to embezzle $600,000 in county funds.