Jim Kenyon: Coronavirus orders slow to reach some courts

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/17/2020 9:40:46 PM
Modified: 3/17/2020 9:40:39 PM

In the back row of the courtroom Monday afternoon, a 4-month-old girl, wrapped in a blanket, nestled against her mother’s shoulder.

What was a baby — or anyone else, for that matter — doing in a courtroom at the Lebanon District Courthouse this week in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic?

“We really didn’t have a choice,” said the baby’s mother, who was at the courthouse to testify, if called, for her fiance, Howard Stevens, of Wells River, Vt. The Lebanon Circuit Court docket had Stevens listed for trial Monday on a criminal trespass charge.

While across the U.S., people were being told to stay home to prevent the virus’s spread, New Hampshire’s 32 circuit courts were still hearing cases Monday.

Never mind all criminal and civil jury trials at the state’s 11 superior courts, which deal with mostly with felony cases, have been canceled since last Thursday. The New Hampshire Judicial Branch kept circuit courts running for a couple more days. It wasn’t until Tuesday that the state suspended most in-person circuit court proceedings through April 6. (Vermont also waited until Tuesday to close its courtrooms through April 15.)

I get why New Hampshire wanted to hold out as long as it could before shutting down circuit courts. They’re the low rung on the criminal justice ladder with high caseloads.

They’re easy money, too.

Many defendants don’t have an attorney. They plead guilty to traffic violations and misdemeanors, such as shoplifting and first-time DWI, just to get on with their lives. On the downside, they often leave hundreds of dollars poorer and saddled with criminal records.

But defendants who enter the Lebanon courthouse are fortunate in a certain respect. I haven’t seen courthouse employees who are more helpful and respectful of people entangled in the legal system than Court Clerk Pam Kozlowski and her staff.

Given the order from Concord to keep the toll booth open, the Lebanon court had more than 40 cases scheduled for Monday. But Kozlowski told defendants who called ahead of time that if they felt uncomfortable about walking into a crowded courthouse their cases could be postponed, no questions asked.

In these uncertain times, Kozlowski said, courts across the state have adopted a “liberal continuance policy.” On Monday, Lebanon Circuit Court Judge Michael Mace didn’t issue arrest warrants for defendants who failed to show without notifying the court.

Jamie Brooks, managing attorney for the Grafton County Public Defender office in Orford, didn’t wait for the state to act.

He informed court officials Sunday that public defenders and their clients wouldn’t be showing up for hearings in Lebanon the next day.

“It was not intended to be disrespectful, but it’s my job to do what I can to keep our attorneys, staff and clients safe,” Brooks told me in a phone interview. “We’re of no use, if we have to get quarantined for 14 days.”

About one-third of the cases on Monday’s docket were rescheduled, Kozlowski said.

Before the afternoon session got underway, a dozen or so defendants and family members sat on benches outside the main courtroom. Several state troopers and local police officers milled around the lobby, waiting their turn to testify or to prosecute cases. (In New Hampshire, prosecutors don’t need a law license.)

Ben LeDuc, the attorney who prosecutes criminal cases for the city of Lebanon, sympathized with three subpoenaed witnesses who were waiting to testify in a bad-check case only to find out the trial had been postponed.

Noting last week’s cancellation of Superior Court jury trials, LeDuc told me, “We shouldn’t be here.”

Not everyone was displeased, though. A 29-year-old woman without an attorney who planned to plead guilty to a simple assault charge, told me, “I just want to get it over with.”

Before the judge arrived, I chatted with a 26-year-old woman who works in customer service at an Upper Valley bank. She, too, was going it alone in her DWI case.

It’s hard to escape the nonstop bad news about the coronavirus outbreak, but glancing around the courtroom, she made an interesting observation.

“Most people here are in their 20s,” she said, “so I guess we’re low-risk.”

After pleading guilty, she returned to the lobby, where a large bottle of hand sanitizer was available to the public on the front counter. Her fine and court fees totaled $930. She paid part in cash and put the rest on a credit card.

An hour into the afternoon session, Stevens’ case was called. Enfield police alleged that Stevens, a 39-year-old mason, had smashed open an apartment door last August.

The misdemeanor charge didn’t carry the potential for jail time, which meant he couldn’t apply for a public defender.

With Stevens standing by himself at the defense table, Lower Grafton County Attorney Chris O’Connor informed the judge that he was dropping the charge.

The state’s witness had moved to Maryland and didn’t intend to return to the Upper Valley for Stevens’ trial, O’Connor said.

With his fiancee and infant daughter in tow, Stevens headed home. Considering the coronavirus pandemic had already closed most schools, bringing their daughter to the courthouse was a “little nerve-wracking,” Stevens said.

But they wanted to get his case resolved, and without anyone to care for their daughter for a good part of a day, they didn’t have an option, he said.

The Lebanon court clerk’s office remains open for the filing of paperwork and emergency proceedings, such as protective orders for domestic violence, stalking and juvenile abuse cases.

But on Tuesday morning, the courtroom itself was dark. Better late than never, I suppose.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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