What’s Going On In Local Courthouses like Fairfax County?
If I’ve represented you previously in Fairfax County for a Traffic Misdemeanor such as Reckless Driving, I either appeared in court on your behalf or perhaps you parked in my parking lot, met me in my office and we walked over to the courtroom together. There was a prosecutor assigned to your case whom I’d speak with to possibly reach a resolution before considering going to trial.
When the courthouses reopened in July, everything changed due to COVID-19. Much like any other public place or private establishment, the courts had to make adjustments according to CDC guidelines and state executive orders. Now, the sitting areas outside the courtrooms are blocked off or removed, stickers and signs are everywhere to make sure that everyone is social distancing. The friendly clerks at the windows in the clerk’s offices now have plexiglass for protection. Also, local courts have instituted segmented dockets. In Fairfax, if your traffic summons says 9:30 AM, it will be changed to 9:00 AM, 10:00 AM, or 11:00 AM, to limit the number of people in each courtroom. A notice will be mailed to you 2-3 weeks prior to your court date.
You can still come to court, but it’s not advised if you have a health concern and/or your appearance is waived. The next biggest difference is many courthouses such as Fairfax County no longer have a prosecutor handling the case if it is a misdemeanor or infraction. Before, attorneys could find the prosecutor assigned to your case and obtain information and chat about possible amendments or reductions. This would typically exclude police officers – the people who gave you the ticket. However, now, without a designated prosecutor, police officers are often made to take their spot and put in awkward situations where they are acting as prosecutors and negotiating or making motions to a judge. The police are not licensed lawyers who can do some of the things that the absent Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney should be doing.
With this change, if you have a misdemeanor offense other than a domestic violence (between intimate partners), DUI/DWI, stalking or some types of animal abuse case, you’re going to have to pitch a proposed resolution directly to the judge (hopefully with the police officer’s indifference in the outcome) or go to trial. There is no more certainty in knowing you have a chance to speak with a prosecutor to possibly get a good outcome by explaining your client’s side of things and showing mitigation to get a charge reduced instead of taking a gamble with whichever judge you have on the court date.
Due to this unknown factor in which judge you might have, you can imagine that when attorneys sense that case might have a poor outcome, they are continuing cases for a better chance next time. This is causing a backlog in courtrooms and ultimately a difficult time for you and your attorney if you have a pending misdemeanor. The public needs the Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney, the county’s chief prosecutor, Steve Descano to get involved again in traffic and criminal court.