The pandemic has disrupted a wide variety of community functions. It’s changed everything from grocery shopping and eating at restaurants to how medical facilities and public transportation operate. An element of the community that is more easily overlooked, however, is law enforcement and the justice system. Covid has forced law enforcement agencies — nationally and locally — to change the ways in which they operate.
These changes, driven by the effort to keep officers, staff, and dispatchers safe, have made some parts of the judicial process more complex and frustrating. Heather Frei, Civil Deputy and Dispatch Supervisor for the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, has spent nearly a year now navigating a system that is significantly more cumbersome than the usual way of handling those who violate the law.
Before Covid, Frei explained, if an individual was stopped or cited for something like driving under the influence, possession of a controlled substance, or other nonviolent offense, they would be arrested and brought to the county jail. “The booking process is when we get fingerprints and enter the information into the national database. Where an offense ends up on your criminal history” she said. “But because of safety precautions, people aren’t brought in. Instead, they’re being cited and released on the side of the road.”
The consequences of this have the potential to be significant. For one, if an individual is cited for a crime in Teton County, Idaho, and released to return to their home state, the record of the citation is not available for other law enforcement agencies. In other words, if an individual is cited for a misdemeanor in Teton Valley, and then is subsequently stopped for something similar in another state, the arresting officer may not see that there are, in fact, prior incidents on the individual’s record. That information is important for ensuring continuity of community protection across all states and counties.
Moreover, the citations make Frei’s job as a civil deputy significantly more difficult. When an arrestee is booked into jail, and then released, they’re given a court date at that time. In the current system, a roadside citation includes a court summons that requires them to make arrangements for their hearing. If they fail to do so and it requires followup, and a warrant is not immediately issued, it then becomes Frei’s task. And it’s no small one.
“Since we’re such a large tourist community, many folks who get citations are from another county, in another state. Based on the information I get from the citation, I have to not only search them down, but also find the correct person in their home area to serve the papers,” she explained. Sometimes that’s not terribly difficult; smaller jurisdictions are accustomed to helping out other agencies in this manner. When it comes to bigger cities, however, the challenge can be much steeper. In the past weeks alone, Frei has been tasked with serving notices to individuals in North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, Colorado, and more.
“Once that process is done, and someone has been served with their notice of hearing, they’ve got the opportunity to show up at their remote, virtual hearing with the judge,” Frei explained. If they aren’t served with the hearing information for any reason, or if they decide to skip their court date, Frei said, “That’s when a warrant goes out for somebody.”
“It just makes the civil deputy’s job harder, and makes the court’s job harder — there’s so much more paperwork,” she reflected.
Teton County prosecutor Bailey Smith said that while it has caused some delays, there is a benefit to citing and releasing people--it keeps deputies safe and in-county.
“We usually have between one and three officers on shift, so if one of them is driving a transport to Madison County, that’s one not patrolling here,” Smith said.
While 99 percent of hearings are being conducted remotely, additional hurdles remain for the safe transport and trial of those arrested on felony charges. Madison County — where Teton County houses those accused of felonies — is not currently accepting transfers due to Covid. Similarly, the network of transit buses that was previously utilized to move prisoners from one part of the country to another is entirely shut down by the pandemic.
“It’s shut down the whole country — we can’t move these folks around,” explained Frei. “From Wisconsin west, we could extradite somebody. But at this point, we can’t extradite from very far away.” This means that those arrested on a warrant from Idaho can’t necessarily be brought back to face charges right away; they’re often stuck in the jurisdiction in which they were arrested.
Frei is hopeful that once larger numbers of the community receive vaccinations, their office’s operations will begin to return to normal. “I’m going to assume once we get into a normal level, we may start booking and releasing again. But it will be up to Madison County when they will take people again.” That decision, Frei explained, is up to the sheriff, county commissioners, and prosecutors.
She reiterated that while the current mode of operation is a hassle, it keeps officers and her team of dispatchers safer by minimizing their possible exposures. “There are only 8 people who are answering the phones 24/7 in our community. We have to be diligent about making sure they stay healthy,” she said. Dispatchers and law enforcement have been eligible for the early rounds of vaccine, and many are awaiting their second dose. “I think it depends on everybody getting vaccinated,” Frei concluded. “On the whole, if we can bring the numbers down, we can get back to normal.”
Another long-term impact of the pandemic that isn’t going to disappear any time soon is the state’s huge backlog of jury trials. The Idaho Supreme Court ruled last week that criminal and civil jury trials will resume across the state as of March 1. Ensuring Covid safety precautions, the order encourages courts to prioritize jury trials for criminal cases, beginning with those in which a defendant is currently in custody.
Teton County currently has 42 active felony cases that are scheduled for trial or awaiting assignment of a trial date, as well as several potential cases that may be filed in the coming weeks or months. While Smith doesn’t expect all of those to go to trial, she is still concerned that the volume of cases in line is substantial.
“Even if we have one trial per week (which would be much more than the norm and would put a substantial strain on my office) it’s possible that it will take a year or more to deal with the current backlog of cases,” the county prosecutor told the Teton Valley News last week.
She noted that Teton County doesn’t even meet the requirements right now to begin jury trials in March because the active Covid case rate here is too high.
Smith, who was sworn into office just a month ago, said that she’s focused on getting her office up and running and putting new systems in place, including a new website with FAQs for county residents, before those cases start coming through the queue.
“The trial backlog is scary,” Smith said. “Right now, I am doing everything in my power to get county legal affairs in order and get the right systems and protocols in place so that when the time comes to having jury trials, I can dedicate my attention to those trials.”