WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The courts have been open in a limited capacity throughout the pandemic, but they are going to expand operations on Monday. Things are going to be a lot different than they have been traditionally. Many people will find welcome, and likely permanent, changes at courthouses across North Carolina.
“There’s some things in our system that we’ve always done a particular way, only because we’ve always done it that way. Not because there was ever a good reason to do it that way,” New Hanover County’s Chief District Court Judge J. Corpening told WECT. He’s co-chairing the Chief Justice’s statewide COVID-19 Task Force, which is making sweeping changes to the way courthouses will be run moving forward.
In the short term, expect to have your temperature checked when you come to the courthouse, and to sit at least six feet apart from people on marked seats in the courtrooms and the lobbies. To allow for social distancing, there will have to be far fewer people in court than usual.
“Let’s start with the 50,000 traffic tickets that come into [Courtroom 317] every Friday," District Attorney Ben David said. "It’s not uncommon to have 1,000 cases set. Those days are over, and they are not coming back. And they shouldn’t come back.”
David says from now on, the vast majority of traffic tickets can be handled online. You’ll even be able to do driving school over the internet. Under the new system, you’ll typically be able to keep points off your insurance without having to hire an attorney. But if you do need an attorney, you can sign a waiver so they can represent you in court, without you ever having to step foot inside the courtroom. More complicated district court cases will be handled in shifts, no longer requiring everyone to show up for a morning roll call on the day their case is calendared.
“We can’t bring in 200 people to this room all at once, so what we are doing is we are bringing those same 200 people 50 at a time through four parts of the day,” David explained of the new rolling calendar system. Similar to a two-hour window you schedule with a home repairman, people with basic district court matters will be given a two-hour window when their case will be called. It’s being done to keep people safe, but it’s also going to be much more convenient.
“We’re looking at enhancing the use of remote technology. We’re looking at calendar certainty as ways of dealing with things instead of just having a large group of people come and wasting a bunch of time with a calendar call that didn’t have to happen,” Corpening said.
For matters where a person needs to testify, video conferencing options will be more readily available. Witnesses will sometimes be able to appear using their cell phones to conference in instead of appearing in person.
Video conferencing has been used for years for jail inmates making their first appearance. It has now been expanded to handle things like probation violations, arraignments, even plea bargains. Court officials say that is working well. In addition to saving time and money transporting inmates to the courthouse, it also protects inmates from getting infected with the virus and taking it back to the jail with them.
If you have a case calendared for the week of June 1 in Pender or New Hanover County, court officials say you don’t need to go. If it’s your first appearance, it will automatically be continued. If it’s for another matter, contact your attorney and they can represent you by waiver. Officials say the first week of expanded operations since the stay-at-home orders were relaxed is to acclimate attorneys to the new courthouse system, and take care of preliminary business. Courtrooms will reopen up to the public the week of June 8.
Corpening says he will miss some of the face-to-face interactions in the courthouse he had grown used to over his career, but thinks overall these changes are for the better.
“We are looking at how we should move forward in the future, even after [the pandemic] is done. And whether we should ever go back to doing business the way we’ve done it,” Corpening said.
While there will be many changes, a lot of cases in Superior Court will be handled much like they always have. Jury trials in North Carolina are not expected to resume until August 8 at the earliest.
“I don’t think we are going to ever fully lose the human touch in the court system, and that’s a good thing," David said. "We want this to be a vibrant building that does justice. There is still going to be business as usual in many respects on those highest-end cases.”