The last few months of the COVID-19 pandemic have brought big changes for criminal defense attorneys in St Petersburg and all throughout Pinellas County, Florida. The way that criminal cases are being handled at the Pinellas County Justice Center have changed dramatically even since the lockdown began in mid-March, 2020. Fortunately, criminal and traffic cases have settled into a rhythm even though the lack of jury trials has slowed the system down and there are still a lot of unknowns as to when they will begin.
Ever since the Florida Supreme Court issued its first administrative order, there has been a lot of confusion in the court system. The purpose of this article is to update the public about what is going on with criminal charges in Pinellas County and what they can expect moving forward. The following is the status of criminal cases in Pinellas County for July and August 2020.
What Is the General State of Criminal Cases in Pinellas County?
A hidden benefit of the pandemic is that crime and arrests are down. Since mid-March, people have changed their behavior. Bars are currently shut down and there is much less drug and alcohol activity. As you are aware, drug and alcohol use is the biggest contributing factor to criminal behavior and arrests. Driving is down as well. There are fewer DUIs, driving on suspended license charges, and leaving the scene of an accident charges. From mid-March through May, it was estimated that these crimes were down by 90%. However, now that the economy has reopened, people are again being arrested, albeit in fewer numbers. And, there are still thousands of people with pending charges and outstanding warrants for missing court.
In general, penalties for criminal charges have been lenient. Few people are being sentenced to jail. The Office of the State Attorney has been more reasonable than they have been in the past. As a result, it is a good time to get your criminal case resolved. I have seen more lenient dispositions during the past few months than I’ve seen in the past 20 years. The judges are being friendlier and more understanding about virtually everything.
What Is the Status of Felony Cases?
No one is expected to be present for a felony hearing unless a plea deal has been worked out in advance. Although a couple of judges are conducting court via Zoom.com, most are simply calling defense lawyers to get updates on cases. Although jail cases are not favored, judges are still sentencing people to jail and prison. However, the deals are much more lenient. For the most part, cases that are disputed are stalled. Depositions are only being taken via video for police officers, and that has just begun. But, in general, there are great plea deals being offered. I have had several felony cases dismissed and other reduced to misdemeanors without me even asking!
What Is the Status of Misdemeanor Cases?
Misdemeanor courts are moving much more efficiently than felony courts. Almost all of the judges are conducting hearings via Zoom. Some people go to court, but it is discouraged. If a deal is worked out, a defendant can submit a plea in absentia (PIA) or fill out a plea form with his or her lawyer and email it in. Resolving misdemeanor cases has been extremely smooth.
Both North County traffic court and South County traffic court are open. For almost all traffic cases, the deals have been fines only. However, the one area that I’ve found that prosecutors are not being any more lenient is reducing DUIs to reckless driving charges. The prosecutors have not changed their approach as to whether these charges should be reduced or amended. But, the bright side is that if they don’t reduce a DUI, they are still giving lenient plea offers. The lack of jury trials have unfortunately put a lot of my DUI clients in a tough position. They want to go to trial on the DUI, but since we have no idea when jury trials will return, they are faced with being without a license for a long time. For many, it is not worth going through a license suspension now only to risk another one in the future if they lose the case. Many just want to get the case and license suspension over with, which is understandable.
What Is the Status of Vop Cases?
For felony VOPs, defendants are being liberally given notices to appear rather than being held on no bond. The plea deals to resolve the cases also have been generous especially if it is a technical violation. For misdemeanor VOPs, virtually everyone is being given more chances. As long as a defendant shows progress completing the conditions of probation or staying clean, no one is being taken to jail.
Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney in Pinellas County
I am a criminal defense attorney in St. Petersburg and I specialize in criminal cases in Pinellas County, Florida. Because I only handle cases in one county, I am familiar with the practice requirements of each judge and the prosecutors. I am also the President of the St. Petersburg Bar Association, so I have a unique perspective on my cases. If you are under investigation for a crime, have been arrested, or have missed court, please contact me immediately. There are presently opportunities to resolve your issues that have never existed before in our criminal justice system. If you wait until the courts reopen fully, I guarantee that you will have missed a golden opportunity. If you have any questions about the status of the court system or about a case, please contact me for a free consultation.