Courts postpone minor cases amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Businesses are closed, more than 817,000 people in Michigan have filed for unemployment benefits in the last three weeks and now courts are holding off on civil cases, postponing those involving minor infractions for the time being.

More serious cases are being handled remotely over Zoom video conferencing. John Nevin, Michigan Supreme Court communications director,  says that experience has been “positive for the most part.”

But more important at a time of economic struggle when a record-high of more than 6 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, courts are holding off on fines and fees associated with civil cases by postponing them until the state is open for business..

Courts set the amount of fines for violations, said Lt. Brian Oleksyk, a State Police public information officer, and troopers are using more discretion when making traffic stops and issuing citations.

His district covers Lenawee, Hillsdale, Ingham, Livingston, Clinton, Eaton, Jackson, Washtenaw and Monroe counties.

Oleksyk said that while troopers are trying to remain visible to the public, they still must abide by social distancing practices.

In addition, authorities have said police legally can’t stop anyone on the road just because they aren’t staying inside.

Many courts, like those in Hillsdale County, are adjourning cases for civil infractions and aren’t requiring county residents to pay late charges on their fines.

“Some of this has been required by our Supreme Court,” said Sara Lisznyai, the chief district judge in Hillsdale County. “First and foremost, we are adjourning cases, so if it says the charges are pending, they still will be.”

Lisznyai said the combination of a tough economic climate and high unemployment in the county presented officials with the choice of holding off on charging additional court fees.

Some people have payment plans for money owed to the courts, said Lisznyai. They aren’t being required to pay on time because so many area residents have lost their jobs as the COVID-19 pandemic halted non-essential work, she said.

“It recognizes that we have a significant amount of people who are unemployed,” Lisznyai said. “We are trying to work with everyone to get through this difficult time.”

Her caseload has been “paring down” since March as the courts have moved to virtual hearings, Lisznyai said.

Remote video hearings haven’t been an issue for Hillsdale County for the most part, she said. The only problems arose with technology and security initially.

Lisznyai said all hearings are posted on YouTube as a part of continued transparency in the judicial process. 

Defendants can participate in arraignments and other court functions remotely. But felony hearings, preliminary hearings and most other hearings must be held in-person.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack said, “Michigan’s judiciary is moving forward at light speed to make sure that virtual court proceedings are just as accessible, efficient and transparent as traditional proceedings.

“With the technological tools and the support, courts can protect public safety and constitutional rights and also prevent the spread of COVID-19,” McCormack said.

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