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Federal trials postponed in Az; Streamline hearings continue in Yuma
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Federal trials postponed in Az; Streamline hearings continue in Yuma

  • The Evo A. DeConcini U.S. District courthouse in downtown Tucson on Thursday.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comThe Evo A. DeConcini U.S. District courthouse in downtown Tucson on Thursday.

While federal courts in Arizona will delay most operations because of COVID-19 through least the end of March, criminal and civil trials are being pushed back until at least May. However, the government will continue to hold hearings for initial appearances and detention hearings. 

This includes Operation Streamline, which was halted in Tucson, but continues at the federal courthouse in Yuma as Chief U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow created an exemption for the courthouse there, allowing it to proceed  if hearings involve fewer than "10 total participants including court staff and deputy marshals." 

Just three people went through Operation Streamline – the fast-track immigration prosecution system that's been in Arizona since 2008 — on Friday in Yuma, according to the district's website.  

Last Friday, Snow ordered the courts to begin winding down operations, delaying civil and criminal trials, and a week later, Snow updated his guidelines, keeping the court's closed to "non-case related gatherings" like naturalization ceremonies, attorney admissions,  mock trials, continuing-learning events, and school tours. 

"In response to the continued spread of COVID-19, President Trump has declared a national emergency and issued guidelines directing at-risk individuals including those 60 and older, to stay away from other people, to work from home whenever possible, to avoid discretionary travel, and to avoid gatherings of more than ten people," wrote Snow. He noted that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency, and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and "other health authorities have advised people to take precautions to reduce the possibility of exposure to the COVID-19 virus and to slow the spread of disease." he said. "In particular, the CDC is recommending that people attempt to keep physical distance between themselves and other people. This technique, known as social distancing, is especially important for people who have a higher health risk," he said. 

Trials or other procedures continued in Tucson last week will remain halted until at least March 29, and may be subject to a "further continuance," Snow said. "Initial Appearances and preliminary and detention hearings shall proceed as scheduled," Snow wrote, while all other proceedings are continued and shall be reset to a date on or after March 30, 2020." 

All  civil and criminal jury trials scheduled to begin on or before May are continued, Snow wrote. This includes deadlines for criminal cases, though individual judges presiding over criminal trials may move forward if "such actions consistent with this order as may be lawful and appropriate to ensure the fairness of the proceedings and preserve the rights of the parties." 

Snow addressed concerns that by putting cases aside for the next several weeks, this could violate the Sixth Amendment rights of the accused. 

"Due to the Court’s reduced ability to obtain an adequate spectrum of jurors and the effect of the public health recommendations on the availability of counsel and Court staff, the period of the continuances implemented by this General Order will be excluded under the Speedy Trial Act," he wrote. "The Court specifically finds that the ends of justice served by ordering the continuances outweigh the best interests of the public and any defendant’s right to a speedy trial." 

Though Snow allowed that judges "may continue to hold hearings, conferences, and bench trials that they deem necessary consistent with this order." 

"Such proceedings shall be conducted by telephone or video-teleconference when feasible," Snow said. 

The government's pursuit of at least three men in Yuma County under two crimes related to U.S. immigration law runs counter to a tweet written by Ken Cuccinelli, the "senior official performing the duties of the Deputy Secretary" of the Department of Homeland Security, who said on March 18 that New Mexico and Arizona courts are suspending "certain prosecutions for immigration violations due to concerns about Covid-19." 

On Friday, the three men were each charged with illegal entry and illegal re-entry under Operation Streamline in Yuma. 

Cuccinelli continues to work at DHS, and as the acting director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services despite a court ruling that he was illegally put into the position. 

Snow also said that the clerk's office will be available by telephone, and mail will be opened and processed, but the customer service counters will be closed at all three U.S. District courts until May 1, and "may be continued based on public health guidance." 

"Those wishing to make in-person filings will be directed to leave such materials at established drop boxes located near the entrances to the courthouses," Snow wrote, adding that criminal debt payments can also be dropped off at the locked drop boxes, and receipts will mailed out.

Snow did not address probation offices and pretrial services in his most recent order, however, those remained open as of last week. 

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