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Idaho Supreme Court issues new COVID-19 guidelines for jury trials

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Magisrate Judge Faren Eddins sits behind plexiglass at a preliminary hearing in August. | EastIdahoNews.com file photo

IDAHO FALLS — After a months-long hiatus, jury trials in some Idaho counties will move forward starting Sept. 14.

Unfortunately, that won’t be the case for every county in Idaho thanks to continuing high numbers of COVID-19 cases in some areas. Jury trials have been suspended across Idaho due to the pandemic since March 26.

On Thursday, the Idaho Supreme Court updated the jury trial guidelines.

In the order, signed by Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick, criminal jury trials can begin Sept. 14 if the county meets a certain number of COVID-19 active cases reported on the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare website. For the moment, civil jury trials remain on hold.

“The Supreme Court Order allows our courts to begin restarting criminal jury trials while putting in place guidelines for doing so in a manner to protect the health and safety of jurors, litigants and court personnel. Jury trials will look different, but it is important to the courts to get the criminal cases that have been on hold back on track,” 7th Judicial District Trial Court Administrator Tammie Whyte told EastIdahoNews.com.

As per the order, a criminal jury trial can go forward if on the Thursday prior to the beginning of a trial a county has below 25 active COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population. If a county is above that threshold, a trial must be postponed.

Additionally, if a county has a seven-day average of active COVID-19 cases between 14.0 and 24.9 per 100,000 population and the numbers are trending upward over the previous seven days, then a trial cannot commence.

Based on these guidelines, Bingham and Madison counties in east Idaho are barred from starting jury trials based on IDHW data last updated Thursday night.

Per the order, if a county is below the threshold and begins a trial, but then rises above the threshold during the proceedings, the county will be allowed to continue the trial.

Previously the Supreme court ordered that jury commissioners are required to send out COVID-19 questionnaires along with a jury summons. The questioner has 10 personal health questions for potential jurors about their risk of exposure to COVID-19.

The questionnaire also allows any person 65 and older to opt-out of jury service if they indicate they wish to be excused. The order comes along with guidance from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare that discouraging jurors from being over the age of 65 due to their increased risk to the COVID-19 virus.

As court proceedings resume, social distancing measures are to be maintained in courtrooms, but a judge can allow attorneys to be closer than six feet to their clients, to allow for conversation.

The attendance inside the courtrooms will continue to be limited at the discretion of the judge. Due to limited space in courtrooms, most hearings will only allow people like court staff, witnesses, jurors, defendants and attorneys.

“If the public cannot be physically present in the courtroom, a publically accessible live audio and video stream of the proceedings must be provided,” an earlier order reads.

Witnesses testifying in court may also wear face shields or sit behind a transparent barrier like plexiglass. Masks should not be used by those testifying, “so facial expressions and the mouth can be observed while speaking.”

Anyone who refuses to comply with the orders can be barred from entering the courthouse and be held in contempt of court.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Bonneville, Power and Fremont counties as unable to start trials. That information was incorrect. EastIdahoNews.com apologizes for the error.

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