Court was back in session in Miami-Dade County this week — but it was not business as usual.
In a first run of what could be a model for the rest of the state, a civil suit this week over a home insurance dispute gave a glimpse of how the justice system hoped to adapt to the new socially distant normal as COVID-19 cases surge in Florida.
Jurors were selected via Zoom, attorneys made opening statements wearing protective masks and the trial was streamed on YouTube. It worked pretty well aside from some technical glitches and an awkward moment or two.
During a Zoom call to pick a jury, some prospects forgot to unmute while answering questions and one even forgot to do the opposite during a bathroom break — producing a sound effect that drew a few odd looks among those on the call.
The virtual jury selection went better than expected, said Brandon Waas, an attorney representing the plaintiff People’s Trust Insurance. There were some other minor glitches, including background noise and growing pains in learning how to navigate the video call software but extensive preparation for the pilot made the selection process go smoothly.
He said the main challenge in jury selection was being unable to tell if people were paying attention or even texting, as individuals were only visible to him as tiny boxes on the computer screen.
“In real life I can see out of the corner of my eye if someone is not paying attention,” Waas said, “and that might tell me a lot about whether someone is going to be a good juror or a bad juror.”
Miami-Dade’s 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida is the first of five judicial circuits in the state chosen by the Florida Supreme Court to test out using remote video technology. A report on the success of the pilot programs from the courts is due in October.
After getting to lounge at home during the selection process, jurors headed down to the courthouse Tuesday for a socially distant in-person trial.
The trial was livestreamed on the Circuit’s YouTube channel as the courthouse is still officially closed to the public. Four camera views split the screen, showing the judge, attorneys, jury and the witness stand, which is surrounded by a plexiglass shield.
Miami-Dade Civil Administrative Judge Jennifer Bailey said the court was guided by advice from epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists when planning the in-person trial.
At the courthouse, trial participants are under strict social distancing and safety guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Face masks are mandatory at all times and every person is spaced at least six feet apart. Instead of sitting in a jury box, jurors are spread out in the gallery — constantly maintaining six feet distance from everyone else. The court also provided all participants with face shields, gloves, individual evidence notebooks and hand sanitizer.
“Even if somebody was in [the courtroom] with COVID, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone else would contract it if everyone else just follows the rules,” Bailey said. “Which is a lesson for everyone in Florida wherever they go, just follow the rules.”
To get into the courthouse, individuals must get their temperature checked and answer COVID-19 screening questions. During breaks, the jury cannot leave the courthouse and participants are assigned separate courtrooms to social distance themselves. Lunch is provided so no one has to leave to eat.
The 11th Judicial Circuit is considering doing another civil jury trial, but Bailey said it is not yet possible to bring in a jury for a criminal trial. The planning of the pilot trial “took a village,” she said, and currently it would be impossible to have 10 or 15 trials going on at the same time.
While this jury trial marked the first of its kind in the state, not all court proceedings have been put on hold. As of the end of June, the Circuit has done approximately 32,000 hearings for non-jury trials via Zoom, Bailey said.
Miami-Dade Chief Judge Bertila Soto said she was impressed with the commitment of the members of the juror panel during the trial.
“It has been very gratifying to know that the public believes in what we believe,” Soto said. “It is a very important part of our court system and of our community that the court system needs jury trials.”