Florida Conducts First Socially Distanced Trials

During the month of July, jury trials “resumed” in both state and federal courts in Florida, albeit with several restrictions.

Florida’s first civil jury trial, People’s Trust Insurance Company vs. Yusem Corchero et al., was part of a voluntary pilot program that Chief Justice Charles Canady authorized in five circuits. The trial started July 14th in Miami in front of 11th Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko. Both sides volunteered to be part of the proceeding, which was non-binding.

The trial was in a case involving an insurance dispute that arose from damage Hurricane Irma inflicted on a South Florida home in September 2017.

Jury selection was conducted remotely via Zoom and live streamed on the 11th Circuit’s YouTube page. Using remote technology for jury selection allowed court officials to limit the number of people required to report to the courthouse.

The trial itself took place in the Courtroom, where all parties, the Judiciary and the jury were present. Jurors were given special parking, escorted up the elevator in groups of two, required to have their temperatures checked, required to fill out a health questionnaire, and given surgical masks and face shields. In the Courtroom, social distancing measures were in place, masks and face shields were required, and witnesses testified behind Plexiglass. Rather than sitting in the jury box, jurors were spread out in the gallery.

Before the trial, a survey of 600 Miami-Dade County residents conducted by the local chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates showed that citizens would be willing to perform their civic duty during a pandemic, said Administrative Judge Jennifer Bailey.

Although a verdict was reached in this trial, issues did arise. One juror had to be excused after waiting too long to download the videoconferencing app. During jury selection, it was impossible to tell if prospective jurors were paying attention, and their responses as individuals were only visible to him as tiny boxes on the computer screen. Other minor technical issues included background noise, growing pains in learning how to navigate the software, and individuals failing to mute devices.

The 11th Circuit has additional volunteers willing to participate, but 11th Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto said she has yet to decide whether to attempt another trial.

“This has taken a very significant dedication of time, effort and human resources behind the scenes to make this happen as seamlessly as it has,” she said. “It makes the idea of scaling up a significant number of jury trials extremely challenging.” Court officials spent months consulting epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists so that safety would be paramount, Soto said.

The other four circuits authorized to conduct pilot trials have yet to begin a proceeding, and some are reporting difficulty with finding willing participants.

In federal court, criminal trials have also resumed in Florida, albeit at a much slower pace. The United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida successfully conducted the first two federal or state in-person criminal jury trials in Florida since COVID-19 restrictions began in March. The first trial began in Pensacola on July 6th, and the second began in Gainesville on July 21st.

For more information on this topic, you can contact Hanson Horn, a partner who practices in Florida as well as New York for The Cook Group. Hanson’s email is hhorn@cookgrouplegal.com.

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