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Changes take effect at Hidalgo County Courthouse to prevent spread of COVID-19

2 weeks 14 hours 57 minutes ago Monday, March 16 2020 Mar 16, 2020 March 16, 2020 6:51 PM March 16, 2020 in News - Coronavirus Pandemic

EDINBURG – Several changes are going into effect at the Hidalgo County Courthouse as a COVID-19 preemptive measure.

Residents in Hidalgo County can expect to see changes to jury duty, bonds, public access to the courtroom and possible screenings at the entrance to the courthouse. These are temporary changes a board of judges voted on and approved Monday morning.

In a crowded room, a board of judges in Hidalgo County decided to postpone jury duty. Judge Noe Gonzalez of the 370th District Court is the administrative local presiding judge.

He explained, "We're suspending jury panels up to May 8. Three weeks before May 11, which will be the following Monday, we will notify the district clerk's office as to whether or not we will continue the juries after May 11."

Normally, hundreds crowd in the for jury duty. The county is concerned about compelling people into crowded places. They board understands the courts are open to the public by right.

Gonzalez said they're working to find that balance. "That means that they have the right to come in, observe proceedings and be part of proceedings if they are called as witnesses or they are litigants," he said. They're finding ways to allow this to happen.

For those who are part of proceedings, county's IT department will be working to provide more opportunities for video conferencing even if it's rudimentary.

"They're going to set up a camcorder on a computer," explained Gonzalez. "They'll be able to communicate. They'll be able to see the court. We'll be able to see them. We can project what's on the computer onto the big screens in the courtroom so the person is present through video conferencing. That is allowed under the rules."

They are also considering placing monitors outside the courtroom for the public who wants to witness proceedings.

Judges also agreed to rearrange the court dockets to spread out the defendants throughout the day and try to keep to the CDC's limit of under 50 people at a gathering.

The public may also be subjected to screenings before going into the courthouse.

Gonzalez said they're planning to propose a change. "We're hoping to be able to implement where we can at least track temperature. That's all it is, a temperature gauge."    

Officials in attendance at the board of judges meeting expressed concern for those in custody in case of an outbreak. They want to move as many people out of jails, including those outside of the county or public sector.

"We don't know what the independent or private jails that we're utilizing or other counties that we are utilizing to house our prisoners are going to do. They may choose to say, come pick up your prisoners. So, we need to cut that off at the pass. We need to make sure that we try to get as many people out on bond that are bond-able," said Gonzalez.

This doesn't mean they will take crime lightly, but they will work to consider factors important to public safety. "They'll be looking at one, the level of offense – first of all, Class A, Class B misdemeanors, maybe even state jail felonies. They're going to be looking at propensity for violence, the actual accusation whether it's a violent offense or not. Low-level drug cases, low-level theft cases will be looked at a much easier fashion to be able to bond out."

The county was granted latitude by a Texas Supreme Court order. It helps guide them on what are essential cases.

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