By Carey Phillips
Most court proceedings in North Carolina have been shut down because of concerns about COVID-19, the coronavirus.
Chief Justice Cheri Beasley made the announcement Friday.
She directed local courts to postpone most cases in district and superior court for at least 30 days.
“We must be proactive in taking steps to prioritize the health and safety of our fellow North Carolinians while also maintaining the integrity of our judicial system,” Beasley said. “Today’s order will allow us to drastically reduce the exposure caused by crowded sessions of court, which often bring hundreds of people at a time into our courthouses.”
The court system remains open and exceptions to her order include: proceedings conducted remotely; proceedings necessary to preserve the right to due process of law (such as a first appearance or bond hearing, the appointment of counsel for an indigent defendant, a probation hearing, a probable cause hearing, etc.); proceedings for the purpose of obtaining emergency relief (such as a domestic violence protection order, temporary restraining order, juvenile custody order, judicial consent to juvenile medical treatment order, civil commitment order, etc.).
This emergency directive does not apply to any proceeding in which a jury has already been empaneled or to any grand juries already empaneled. It also does not prohibit a judge or other judicial officer from exercising any in chambers or ex parte jurisdiction.
The superior and district courts are encouraged to liberally grant additional accommodations to parties, witnesses, attorneys and others with business before the courts who are at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
All counties will post a notice at all court facilities directing any person who has likely been exposed to COVID-19 to not enter the courthouse. Any person who has likely been exposed and has business before the courts should contact the clerk of court’s office by telephone or other remote means.
Likely exposure includes: (1) anyone who has traveled to China, South Korea, Japan, Italy or Iran within the previous 14 days; (2) has been directed to quarantine, isolate or self-monitor; (3) has been diagnosed with COVID-19; or (4) resides with or has been in close contact with any person in the above mentioned categories.
Anyone with an illness is strongly encouraged to not come to court facilities. Also, anyone over 65, those with underlying health conditions, including heart or lung disease, diabetes or with weakened immune systems should not come to court facilities.
As the courts work to postpone thousands of cases, court officials will notify parties and their attorneys of new hearing and trial dates.
Jackson County Clerk of Court Ann Melton encouraged the use of nccourts.gov/services. She said those who have complied after receiving citations for offenses such as no operator’s license, an expired registration or expired inspection sticker can obtain dismissals online. Requests for reductions for speeding tickets may also be made online.
“That allows people to continue with their business without having to personally come in,” Melton said.
She also encouraged anyone with a pending court case to sign up to receive text and email notifications regarding when proceedings have been rescheduled. The case number is required to use this service on nccourts.gov. The case number may be obtained by calling the clerk of court’s office at 631-6400 ext. 2.
“I’m sure there is gong to be a backlog,” Melton said of cases being rescheduled when court operations resume. “It’s too soon to have a plan in place about how we are going to manage this, but we will. These are steps that no one has ever seen before after an emergency directive to control the spread of infection and to provide emergency relief.”
Melton said Monday that her office remains open but foot traffic is discouraged.
“Things continue to unfold,” Melton said. “We roll with the punches and do the best we can. This brings about the seriousness of this situation.”