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Virus resurgence at Duval Jail scrambles court operations, two-thirds of inmates in COVID quarantine

Just days after fully resuming in-person criminal court, officials face a jail inmate COVID surge.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A resurgence of COVID at the Duval County Jail is causing the cancellation of some criminal court proceedings and forcing officials to create a new rapid testing process for defendants.

According to 4th Circuit Chief Judge Mark Mahon, two-thirds of jail inmates are currently on COVID quarantine, complicating efforts to get criminal court calendars moving again.

"It's very disappointing," he told First Coast News. "We thought we were going to be back to full operations." Instead, he said, "It's kind of back to two steps forward, one step back."

According to a Friday morning memo from Circuit Judge Adrian Soud, defendants must now be rapid tested before their final pre-trial appearance, and again right before jury selection. If they test positive, the trial will be postponed.

The rise in COVID cases among in-custody defendants coincides with a resumption of in-person court. After a year and a half of Zoom court, the Duval County Courthouse ended virtual court just in the past few weeks. Misdemeanor court resumed in-person proceedings on June 28, and felony court resumed on June 21.

COVID cases are also rising in the wider community. Duval County has a 12 percent positive test rate -- the highest since January 2021, before most vaccinations began. 

Mahon said that corresponds to the COVID outbreak at the jail. "The jail is the first indicator of what’s going on in the community from our experience," he said.

The timing of the outbreak so soon after in-person criminal court resumed is unfortunate. Mahon insisted the courthouse will not return to a fully Zoom criminal court, but said a hybrid approach "is not feasible," due to duplicate staffing demands. 

"It's probably as complicated as it was at the outset," Mahon said. "It’s as complicated as frankly it’s ever been."

The scope of the outbreak at the jail is not known – First Coast News asked the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for that information Wednesday afternoon, but had not yet received a response by Friday afternoon. However, multiple sources confirm that in-person jail visits have been canceled with inmates held in precautionary quarantine. Those inmates are also barred from entering the courthouse.

Soud’s memo also creates a special virtual court to process pending plea deals. During the early days of COVID, court officials created a virtual court to handle plea agreements where the punishment was time served. The new “J-2 court,” where the jail inmate appears via remote camera, will handle all plea deals.

Soud's full memo is below:

From: Soud, Adrian
Sent: Friday, July 09, 2021 10:00 AM
Subject: Felony Cases involving in-custody defendants who are in precautionary quarantine

Good morning.

Effective Monday, July 12, 2021, the following matters have been established for felony cases involving in-custody defendants who are in precautionary quarantine:

Intervening Pretrial or other intervening court dates:

Inmates in precautionary quarantine will not be brought to the Courthouse for intervening court dates.

Final Pre-trial and Trials:

Inmates displaying COVID-like symptoms will not be brought to the Courthouse.

Inmates who do not display symptoms will be rapid tested prior to Final Pre-trial.

    • Anyone who tests positive will not be brought to the Courthouse.
    • Anyone who tests negative (and is without symptoms) will be brought to the Courthouse for Final Pre-Trial. Said individual will be rapid tested again just before jury selection. If the individual again tests negative, trial may proceed.

Proposed Plea Agreements:

We will temporarily establish “duty weeks” for handling of all proposed plea agreements (not just time-served) for cases where an in-custody defendant is in precautionary quarantine. The process is as follows:

    • Inmates will be taken to J-2 to appear before the Court via Zoom. “Precautionary Quarantine Appearances” Court will begin at 1:00 p.m. daily, if and as needed.
    • J-2 and any interested parties will dial into a Zoom Room called “Precautionary Quarantine Appearances.” The Zoom ID number is: 671-399-7389. “Telephonic-only” connections to Zoom will not be available/allowed.
    • The duty judge will preside in Courtroom 202. A Smart Board will be placed in Courtroom 202. Per IT, the equipment will be prepared in a manner that joining the “Precautionary Quarantine Appearances” Zoom session from Courtroom 202 will essentially require pushing a button. Importantly, each duty judge’s regular courtroom staff will provide the services needed in Courtroom 202 for that given week (i.e.: bailiffs, clerk, probation officer and court reporter).
    • Counsel shall appear in Courtroom 202. Each lawyer will need to bring a laptop to Courtroom 202 so as to join the Zoom call by video (do not join audio, as the Courtroom is a functioning “Zoom room”).
    • Any cases that need to be set on the “Precautionary Quarantine Appearances” calendar shall be communicated by counsel to the Courtroom Clerk and Bailiff Coordinator.
    • The Bailiff Coordinator in each courtroom shall communicate all such cases to command staff (including Major Colvin, Lt. Price, and Sgt. Brunner) no later than 10 a.m. so that the inmate may appear in J-2 at 1 p.m.
    • Similarly, the Courtroom Clerk for each division will communicate to the clerk’s office/duty clerk those cases that will be set on a given day’s Precautionary Quarantine Appearances calendar.
    • All plea-related documents must be sent by counsel to the division JA, who will then forward it to the duty judge JA.

Judge Soud will be the duty judge the week of 7/12/2021.

Judge Borello will be the duty judge the week of 7/19/2021.

Future weeks will be scheduled shortly.

Thank you.

Judge Adrian G. Soud

Fourth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida

Duval County Courthouse

501 West Adams Street, Suite 7206

Jacksonville, FL 32202

(904) 255-1218