After a yearlong hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic, beginning in March jurors will start being called to serve at state courthouses in Miami-Dade County.
With COVID-19 cases decreasing and the backlog of court cases growing, Miami-Dade officials say resuming jury trials is essential. A task force of Miami-Dade judges, lawyers and medical experts have been meeting for months to plan safety measures.
In recent weeks, summonses have already been mailed, and the first criminal trial could begin by the second week in March.
“People are in jail. There are victims who are waiting for closure. We don’t have a choice. We really need to get the wheels of justice moving,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie, head of the criminal division and incoming chief judge of the 11th Circuit. “We are so grateful to the jurors that are willing and able to serve and we are going to do everything in our power to keep them safe.”
If you are a Miami-Dade resident and get a summons to appear for jury duty in state civil or criminal court, here’s what you need to know:
Before showing up
Before the pandemic, you received summonses in the mail and had to show up to either the civil or criminal courthouse in Miami-Dade, then wait in a sprawling jury pool room to be called for a case.
But now, when you get a summons, you’ll be asked to first register with an online system known as eJuror or call 786-828-5879, so lawyers and the courts can cull out people with scheduling, child care or other conflicts. The goal: Limit groups of potential jurors who physically come to court on any day to about 35 people. Remember: You’re on call for the whole week.
“Please note you are on standby for jury service during the week shown on your summons,” according to the clerk of courts. “You may have to report on any day that week. On the Friday before your start date you will receive an email with your reporting instructions.”
If you are called to court, after additional questioning, either six or 12 jurors, plus alternates, will be selected to listen to evidence, hear testimony and deliver a verdict. How long a jury trial lasts depends on the complexity of the case — it could be just a few days, or even a few weeks.
At least in the beginning, parking should be easier at both the criminal and civil courthouses, with many people still working from home and most all other hearings still being conducted remotely.
“The only people coming into the building will be the jurors,” Sayfie said. “There will be no crowds.”
At the civil courthouse, 73 W. Flagler St., there are multiple municipal garages and private pay lots. At the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building, 1351 NW 12th St., there is free parking for jurors in surface lots next to the building. There will be plenty of spaces because virtually all other hearings are still being conducted via Zoom.
“Please allow enough time to locate the free juror’s parking and pass through building security,” according to the clerk of courts’ website.
Where to go
At the courthouses, you will enter through a designated entrance. Once through security, you’ll be asked questions about your health and contacts with possibly infected people. Also, prepare to have your temperature taken. And bring a mask or several because you’ll need to wear it everywhere.
Bailiffs will escort you to an escalator or the elevator — and only two people per ride will be allowed. The destination: the jury pool room.
Food and comfort
At the civil courthouse in downtown Miami, the first-floor food counter remains open, as do many restaurants within walking distance. At the criminal courthouse, the cafeterias on the first and seventh floors will have food available for people serving on jury duty. In both courthouses, jurors will also be allowed to bring their own meals, and will have access to refrigerators and microwaves.
By the way, even before the pandemic, the jury pool rooms and courtrooms could get cold, so you may want to bring a light sweater.
Before the pandemic, potential jurors normally crowded into individual courtrooms for voir dire, when the judge and lawyers pepper them with questions about their understanding of the law, impartiality and other matters.
Now, the small group of jurors will be spaced out in the large jury pool room for this process, with the judge and lawyers present but spaced out behind a plexiglass shield. They will only be allowed to sit in certain seats, spaced well away from others. A microphone will be passed around to better hear their answers, and will be wiped down with disinfectant after every use.
Once a full panel is selected, jurors will be sworn in the same room, and then escorted to the courtroom to begin the trial.
Just a reminder, Florida law prohibits your employer from firing you because you are serving on a jury. If your employer doesn’t keep paying your regular wages, or you are not employed, or are self-employed, then you are entitled to receive $15 per day from the state for the first three days, and $30 for the fourth day or service and every day beyond.
Once in trial, jurors will be spaced out, some in the jury box, some in the gallery. A plexiglass pane will shield the judge from the witness stand. Lawyers will question witnesses from their seat, and will not be able to pace around like before.
To limit the number of people in the courtrooms, observers will not physically be allowed to watch. Many seats will be blocked off to ensure social distancing.
A live stream of the proceedings, however, will be shown on the court system’s website to ensure the public’s right to observe.
Everybody — including jurors, witness, judges, lawyers, bailiffs, corrections officers, court reporters — will be required to social distance and wear a mask.
To improve the air quality, machines known as air-scrubbers will also run during breaks and over night. “My understanding is that the circulation in this building is very good, but it’s going to aid in the circulation to make sure the air is continuously clean,” Sayfie said.
Reaching a verdict
Unlike before, jurors won’t have to deliberate a verdict in the cramped jury rooms. Instead, they will be allowed the entire courtroom to deliberate, with lawyers and court personnel moving to an adjacent courtroom or other offices to wait or engage in other litigation.
As before the pandemic, an attendance certificate, which specifies the dates of jury service, can be obtained from the courts by logging into eJuror after 7 p.m. after each day of service.