Philly’s coronavirus response

Right to a speedy trial? Constitutional concerns flare as Philly courts extend shutdown

The U.S. Eastern District of Pa. has postponed trials until at least June.

The U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia, at 6th and Market streets

The U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia, at 6th and Market streets

AP Photo / Matt Rourke
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Philadelphia’s federal courts have extended postponement of all trials and non-urgent court matters until the end of May due to the pandemic’s grip on the region, a delay that adds to mounting concerns over due process rights for speedy trials.

In an order issued Friday, Chief Judge Juan R. Sánchez of the U.S. Eastern District said the courts would remain closed until at least May 31 “to protect public health and safety, including the safety of Court personnel and all persons entering courthouses.”

Attorneys say the shutdown is already impacting criminal cases in the U.S. Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The federal jurisdiction spans from Philadelphia to Allentown, and hears cases on topics ranging from illegal firearms to public corruption.

The new order continues the suspension of all in-person trials, preliminary hearings, jury selections and grand jury convenings. Philadelphia’s state-run court system, the First Judicial District, has already indefinitely postponed these proceedings, while other court functions have even pivoted to video and teleconferencing.

Both the state and federal court delays could pose a constitutional reckoning down the road, according to David Rudovsky, a civil rights attorney in Philadelphia.

After law enforcement agencies charge someone with a crime, the U.S. Constitution says they have certain “due process” rights and lays out a path the legal procedure has to follow. Authorities must present sufficient evidence, either to a judge (preliminary hearing) or a jury of the public (grand jury), to show the case has legs to stand on.

During a procedural standstill, Rudovsky said, the courts could eventually run the risk of violating defendants’ rights to a speedy trial.

“They’re entitled to probable cause determination,” Rudovsky said. “My guess is there are hundreds of cases of people awaiting preliminary hearings that can’t go on at this point. How long will the system tolerate that kind of delay?”

In the U.S. Eastern District, one case already appears to be testing the limits.

Imprisoned ‘indefinitely’ or ‘where he belongs’?

On March 12, federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided an apartment in Center City. It’s unclear what they were searching for initially, but once inside, according to an affidavit submitted in federal court, they found 35-year-old Dawayne Briggs asleep next to a .40 caliber Ruger pistol loaded with 10 live rounds.

It would have been an open and shut case for Briggs, who was on supervised release from a previous drug conviction and therefore unable to legally possess a firearm. But the federal courts partially shut down days after his arrest, leaving him in limbo.

Over a month later, a grand jury has yet to formally indict Briggs, who remains in federal lockup.

His attorney Michael J. Diamonstein has argued in court filings that his defense can’t move forward — and, as it stands, the courts are “indefinitely imprisoning an American citizen without indictment.”

Records show U.S. Attorney William McSwain requested a 30-day continuance (aka postponement) for the case, which was granted by the courts. A magistrate judge denied the defendants’ request for bail, which Diamonstein is now appealing.

In a court filing on Monday, McSwain’s office wrote it “recognizes the burden,” but remained adamant that detention is necessary until an indictment can be handed down.

“Mr. Briggs is in federal prison, where he belongs,” McSwain told Billy Penn. “He is not being held ‘indefinitely’ and any suggestion to the contrary is misleading.”

Diamondstein said it’s very unlikely the courts will actually get to an indictment within 30 days, calling the idea “pure folly.”

McSwain’s office would not confirm if anyone else in federal custody is still waiting to be formally indicted.

The coronavirus found other ways to disrupt the system, even prior to the region’s shutdown. In February, the courts indefinitely postponed the retrial for a Delaware man who drunkenly pilfered a terra-cotta thumb off a statue at the Franklin Institute — because the key witnesses from China were barred from traveling to Philadelphia, the Inquirer reported.

In both state and federal courts, judges continue to hear cases for early release petitions, plea deals and sentences, but no jury selection will move forward until further notice. Even once the courts are able to resume some sense of normalcy, trial-bound cases will likely face a long backlog, attorneys say.

The full long-term impact of the pandemic on the court system remains to be seen.

Rudovsky, the civil rights attorney, said some of the courts were slow to react, and are maybe overly optimistic about fully re-opening within a month or so.

Said Rudovsky: “There’s a little bit more hope than reality in the way the system is responding at this point.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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