IDAHO FALLS — Jury trials across Idaho can resume March 1 following new guidelines released by the Idaho Supreme Court Wednesday.
Previously, all jury trials had been suspended indefinitely due to a surge in statewide COVID-19 cases during December. However, as the number of viral cases has decreased, the rules have softened. Wednesday’s order allows the trials to resume as long as courts follow certain conditions outlined in current and former orders.
As per the order, local courts must look at the case incident rates in the county of the trial before they could begin. The Administrative District Judge must look on the Thursday before the beginning of a trial and ensure the 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 and 25 per 100,000 population and the numbers are trending upward over the previous seven days, then a trial cannot commence.
The courts track this COVID-19 data using information published on the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare dashboard.
Wednesday’s order also allows the paneling of new grand juries under the same conditions as trials. Courts will prioritize jury trials for criminal cases, with defendants who are still waiting behind bars up first. Civil trials will then be prioritized after, according to the Idaho Supreme Court in a news release.
Since COVID-19 has stalled trials across Idaho, courts have seen an ever-increasing backlog of cases needing to go to trial. During the State of the Judiciary Address, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Bevan said last week that over the past year, courts have seen a 22% increase in cases with 40,000 awaiting disposition.
“We are not only working to recognize the scope of what faces us, we are conscientiously developing strategies to address this backlog,” Bevan said. “Already we are utilizing senior and active judges to mediate cases in an effort to reduce the number of pending cases and trials.”
Additionally, Idaho has implemented the use of technology like Zoom to handle many pre-trial matters including arraignments, preliminary hearings and other court proceedings. However, because jury trials require people to gather in person, they were what stalled many cases.
“We have also purchased and distributed additional hardware to each county to ensure that jury trials can be held as soon as possible, even if that includes using locations much different than a traditional courthouse,” Bevan said.
You can read the entire Supreme Court order here