Covid-19 Pandemic & Effects on Alabama Criminal Law
The year 2020 has certainly had a crazy start. The world has been forced to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, which I believe was started by China in an attempt to destroy the United States' economy. Many governments across the globe have taken emergency steps to stop the spread of coronavirus. America's federal government, Alabama state government and local governments across Alabama have been forced to react to this pandemic. Apart from the empty streets, stunned lives, and many other changes, Covid-19 has also affected life in Alabama in various ways. So it's no surprise that the law was affected too.
By reading this article, you will learn about the changes that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the Alabama criminal law.
Here's a quick overview of what the article consists of:
- Supreme court order
- Suspended in-person court proceedings
- Virtual courtrooms
- Travel authorization letter
- Penalties for breaking state health orders
- Criminal case hearings suspended.
- Bond hearings through video conference
- Resolving criminal cases through plea bargains
- Supreme Court Orders
In response to President Trump's national emergency declaration, the Governor of Alabama also declared Covid-19 as a state emergency for the judicial branch of the State of Alabama on 13th March.
In order to provide minimal services, various changes have been implemented in the court procedures.
- Suspended In-Person Court Proceedings
In order to maintain social distancing, all in-person court proceedings were suspended on 13th March, and the Heflin-Torbert Judicial Building was declared closed for the general public with some specific and narrow exceptions.
The emergency still exists, and as a result, the latest extension order was issued on 30th April for the suspension of in-person court proceedings until 15th May.
- Virtual Courtrooms
In order to keep things going, courts were moved to online through Zoom. However, there have been security concerns and confusion about it, which was solved quickly with a security update from Zoom.
- Travel Authorization Letter
Although in-person court proceedings were suspended, the court remained open. Understanding the necessity of this and ensuring that they bear a travel authorization letter from the bar, court officials, attorneys, and non-attorney staff members were permitted to travel as needed for business.
- Penalties for Breaking State Health Orders
Although the law enforcement agencies in some states have taken an educational approach, law enforcement agencies can take a rigorous approach against those who break the health orders, considering it as a criminal offense.
The Governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, has issued state health orders to encourage people to stay at home. However, knowing that people might ignore the rules, state Attorney General Steve Marshall sent a memo to all law enforcement agencies instructing what to do about it.
The memo states that anyone who breaks the state health orders willingly can be charged with a misdemeanor. As a consequence, violating the state health orders can result in a penalty of up to $500. In addition, if someone breaks the health orders multiple times, the police have the authority to arrest them.
- Criminal Case Hearings Suspended.
The Covid-19 virus outbreak has significantly affected criminal law procedures. Due to the strict social distancing orders, criminal case hearings were suspended in almost all courts in Alabama. The decision ended up causing an unfortunate issue. The helpless criminal defendants were denied from their right to a speedy trial.
According to the Sixth Amendment of the US constitution, an accused should enjoy a quick and speedy trial instead of having any unnecessary delay. Since its still unsure when all this will come to an end, the defendants will have to wait.
On the other hand, criminal law in Alabama has some specific timeframes for the prosecution to bring a criminal under trial for some criminal acts. As a matter of fact, this leaves some defendants with a chance to escape conviction.
- Bond Hearings Through Video Conference
The Covid-19 outbreak has forced suspension of in-person court proceedings. However, pending caseloads continue to increase. Since any overcrowding will pose serious health concerns to both the imprisoned and to the law enforcement officers, bond hearings were moved to video conference in some courts of Alabama. As a result, defendants can leave custody once the judge accepts the request.
- Resolving Criminal Cases Through Plea Bargains
Most jails are at risk of being overcrowded. Besides, police officers and corrections officers are more likely to be affected because they have to stay outside as part of their duty. Everyone is worried about the outbreak and the possibility of being affected. As a result, a lot of defendants are opting for plea bargains that could possibly not be in their best long-term interest instead of choosing to stay in jail. The plea bargain is a way to settle for lower charges and lesser penalties by pleading guilty.
During the Covid-19 situation, those who are accused of lesser charges which may not involve incarceration are accepting the allegations to stay out of jail. The prosecutors are also allowing plea bargains so that they can maintain a fresh backlog and settle more cases.
However, this can impact the defendant's lives significantly after the outbreak. For example, their job applications or immigration application may be denied due to having a criminal record. Aside from those, the bargain may also impact their social life.
- Unconstitutional Orders
Although it is for security reasons and the president himself declared Covid-19 as a national emergency, the constitution doesn't allow anyone to do so. The US Constitution protects people's rights to assemble, associate, worship and travel. Emergency powers can only be applied in a few circumstances such as during war, invasion or rebellion. The Covid-19 is a health emergency and since it's not among the few exceptions, the constitutional rights must be protected.
In Alabama, the state government has taken some harsh actions restricting people to stay at home. People are being fined up to $500 for disobeying unconstitutional orders such as worshiping at their church or synagogue or not wearing a mask while in public.
To be fair, it's reasonable to ask people to stay at home. But it's unfair and it is unlawful to fine them for not obeying an unconstitutional order. To save people from these unreasonable fines, criminal defense lawyers in Alabama have done their necessary homework and are providing legal services.
That sums it up. The coronavirus outbreak has changed our world, as well s Alabama criminal law and procedures. These ridiculous, unnecessary and patently unconstitutional legal directives have stolen our autonomy and our freedom. This entire farce is destroying the national economy, ruining small businesses and making an arduous criminal justice system more complex and difficult to navigate, especially for those less financially able to have proper legal representation for themselves and their loved ones seeking their freedom.
If you have been fined or jailed for violating these unconstitutional Covid-19 "laws", contact a Shelby County criminal defense lawyer today. If you are a business in Alabama that has been fined for reopening, please contact us to learn more about your rights. We will not rest until your rights have been guaranteed and will take your case to trial, or even appeal if necessary.