Marion County Courthouse (File/Salem Reporter)

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Across Salem residents are staying inside, avoiding gatherings and leaving the house only for grocery trips or breaths of fresh air as cases of COVID-19 stack up daily.

But inmates in area jails have a constitutional right to a speedy trial and attorneys need to keep showing up to work despite social distancing measures implemented to slow the pandemic’s creep.

“The bottom line is there are constitutional rights we have to abide by. There’s no pandemic clause,” said Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson.

To safeguard those rights, Clarkson said state courts are still running.

However, she said her prosecutors are only processing criminal cases where the defendant is jailed with a focus on crimes like robberies, assaults and domestic violence offenses.

Clarkson said she’s trying to balance public safety with public health. Marion County decided on Saturday to close all its offices to the public. All of Clarkson’s staff are employed by the county.

She said her office is down to less than half of the staff they normally have, about a dozen people physically working in the office while others work from home if their job allows.

Clarkson said she expects the way her office handles cases to become more streamlined as her staff adjusts.

“Obviously, every day brings a new challenge,” she said. “I’m not exaggerating when I say this changes by the hour.”

On Monday, one attorney was handling arraignments at the Marion County Circuit Court Annex after Clarkson’s office downsized operations from two courtrooms to one.

Other lawyers were managing the downtown court appearances.

“It’s a bit clunky today. We are adjusting as best we can,” Clarkson said Monday.

Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters will issue additional orders on court access Friday, her staff said.

On Wednesday, Walters wrote to state legislators proposing a suspension or extension of timelines in criminal cases and a pause on certain civil proceedings.

One proposal intends to extend the 30-day timeline to hold a hearing when a person receives a criminal citation, another would allow hearings to be held by phone.

On March 16, Walters issued an order calling for the postponement of jury trials scheduled to start before March 27.

Criminal trials are still moving forward in Marion County, but the grand jury is only meeting twice a week with one prosecutor handling each day. Normally the grand jury meets five times a week.

The largest courtroom in the courthouse is used for proceedings so people aren’t grouped together.

“We are trying to figure out how else people might be able to watch a trial without being physically present in the courtroom,” Clarkson said.

During a trial, a judge, prosecutor, defendant, attorneys, a court reporter and 12 jurors would be in the room.

The first criminal trial this week is scheduled for Thursday.

Gabriel Gutierrez Jr. is going to trial for two counts of harassment, two counts third-degree robbery, strangulation and two counts of fourth-degree assault. He was charged on Oct. 9 and is in the Marion County Jail.

Prosecutors also are prioritizing domestic violence cases. Victims can still get a restraining order from state judges and can get an advocate on the phone in both Marion and Polk counties.

Clarkson said her office is also expanding the pre-trial release program to clear defendants out of jail so fewer need to immediately have their day in court.

At the Salem Municipal Court, all jury trials, criminal misdemeanors and parking ticket disputes are being postponed for 60 to 90 days. 

Court staff are currently working to reset all court appearances that had been set through the end of April. The city’s website has forms online so people can enter a plea for parking issues without appearing in court. 

Court appearances for civil cases in Marion and Polk counties will have to wait as well.

Brent Sanders was trying to evict Jennifer Wilson from a southeast Salem townhome with a 24-hour notice after she allegedly set a container full of liquid on fire next to her front door on March 16 and threatened to kill people on Facebook, according to a court filing by Sanders.

Both were initially set to appear in court Thursday, but that appearance has been pushed to mid-May.

Judge Norm Hill, presiding judge in Polk County Circuit Court, said he’s currently the only judge in the courthouse handling cases in person. The other three judges are working remotely on matters that don’t require a court appearance.

When an inmate has a court date for an arraignment or plea, they’re brought up from the jail to stand behind an enclosed area and talk over a loudspeaker. Hill said adjacent to the booth, there’s a private area where inmates can call and confer with their lawyers.

The only people in the courtroom are Hill and two staffers, one to clerk and the other to run recordings.

The courtroom is using a conference call technology so lawyers and victims can be in the courtroom virtually.

Hill said they haven’t had any criminal trials scheduled in the coming weeks, but he’s looking ahead to address that issue as inmates in custody have a right to a trial within 60 days or they have to be released.

He said the court has restricted the cases its handling quite a bit but has heard frustration from one group in particular.

Wannabe newlyweds will have to put those plans on hold as marriage licenses aren’t deemed an essential function of the court.

Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton said fewer people are being brought into the jail as people instead get cited for future court dates. He said they’re trying to leave space for high-risk individuals and those charged with committing a Measure 11 offense like murder or rape.

Polk County Sheriff Mark Garton said his office is trying to keep the jail population low, because there are only a few jail cells that have negative airflow, needed to safeguard against possible infections spreading.

“We can’t isolate very many people,” he said.

Garton said for the last week his office has been prioritizing letting people go on conditional release instead of lodging them at the jail when possible.

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office is taking a similar tact.

Sgt. Jeremy Landers said the Marion County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t reduced the jail population, but deputies are citing and releasing people more often.

Landers said there are five negative pressure cells in the jail's medical unit.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell: [email protected]