Utah courts are canceling some hearings and holdings others via video to limit coronavirus spread

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) The Matheson Courthouse in 2016.

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The Utah courts system issued a sweeping order Friday evening that postpones proceedings in certain “non-essential” cases across all levels of the judiciary, and asks that court matters be conducted, when possible, via video or over the phone.

The memo comes one day after Gov. Gary Herbert put out a call to limit mass gatherings in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus and also after the judicial council gave presiding judges the power to delay court proceedings amid the outbreak.

Third District Presiding Judge Mark Kouris was the only one who issued a memo Friday exercising that new authority before the new order came down, effectively quashing his earlier guidance.

The guidelines from Utah Chief Justice Matthew Durrant mandates that only “essential” court proceedings go forward. It says that after Thursday’s order giving individual presiding judge’s authority to, for example, delay hearings, “it has become necessary to issue a single order to govern all courts.”

It says all courthouses must remain open during regular business hours to accept filings and answer phone calls and emails, and that people showing signs of COVID-19 or who have been exposed to someone with symptoms won’t be allowed in.

“To be clear, the courts will continue to operate and provide mission-essential functions such as proceedings involving in-custody defendants and protective orders, to name a few,” Durrant said in a statement. “Using technology, we will continue to find ways to serve the public while reducing the number of people who need to physically come to court.”

In Utah’s district courts, this means trials, domestic violence hearings, evictions, sentencing hearings and hearings related to recalling bench warrants (among other proceedings) will move forward.

The order says courts must take extra precautions during the jury selection process, such as limiting contact between people, having hygiene products available and providing recesses in cases to allow people to take preventative measures, like hand-washing.

In civil court, all proceedings have been postponed except those involving temporary restraining orders, protective orders, stalking injunctions and guardianship cases.

Durrant’s order also cancels all oral arguments in the Utah Court of Appeals and Utah Supreme Court that don’t concern child custody issues, juvenile detention and child safety-related matters, in-custody defendants and election issues.

In the juvenile court system, everything but shelter hearings, protective orders, in-custody delinquency adjudication, detention reviews or any other hearing that involves the imminent safety of a child is canceled.

Justice courts were instructed to remain open, regardless of directives from local government offices, but would only be holding in-custody, bench warrant and sentencing hearings, in addition to trials for people held in custody and proceedings in domestic violence cases.

The order added that judges will continue to perform magistrate functions, like determining pretrial release and bail amounts and approving search warrants.

It also overrules Kouris’ earlier memo that required all jury trials — including those for defendants who are sitting in jail — be delayed at least three weeks.

In addition to Durrant’s Friday order, court officials have said they are taking precautions statewide, including canceling all nonessential group gatherings.

Two more county sheriff’s offices released guidance Friday for how they’re preparing to stop the spread of COVID-19. Utah and Salt Lake county sheriff’s offices, in addition to the Utah State Prison, announced on Thursday the precautions they were taking.

Davis County Sheriff’s Offices has canceled all programs and volunteer efforts. In Weber County, all sheriff’s office programs and volunteer efforts are canceled, too, except the Weber Addiction and Recovery Program at its 12th Street facility.

Weber County jail, which unlike Davis County still allows for in-person visitation, is not restricting visitors. It is, however, encouraging video visits, which cost $5 a call. The jail said it is providing one free video visitation coupon per inmate per week. Family and friends can request the coupon at freevisit@webercountyutah.gov.

Those being booked into Weber County jail will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms, like fever and cough, and prisoners showing signs of coronavirus will be quarantined.

Davis County Sheriff’s Office said Friday it was in the process of setting up an area in the jail where inmates can be isolated from general population, and has adopted plans to quarantine any housing units where an outbreak occurs. It also said staff would be cleaning visitation areas “extensively" after calls.