East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore and the state prosecutors' association are preparing to ask the governor and Louisiana Supreme Court to suspend speedy trial and other legal deadlines in criminal cases statewide in the wake of the spreading novel coronavirus.
Moore said the state District Attorney's Association is working on a draft of the request letter in conjunction with the office of Governor John Bel Edwards and the Supreme Court.
The letter is expected to ask Edwards, the high court or both to declare that the virus constitutes a "force majeure" -- legal jargon that equates to an "act of God" -- that requires the interruption of legal deadlines, Moore said. The letter could be finalized Monday evening.
As of Monday morning, testing found 114 people infected with the virus, primarily in the New Orleans area. Two have died. The per-capita total in Louisiana and the growth of new cases, when compared with other states in the nation, have begun to alarm state health officials.
The 19th and 23rd Judicial District courts in East Baton Rouge, Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes, as well as other local courts in East Baton Rouge and Ascension, have suspended routine court proceedings at least for the next few weeks, if not longer. Bail procedures aren't expected to be halted, however, in the various criminal courts.
Judge Jason Verdigets, senior judge in the 23rd JDC, said bail proceedings would likely happen through a video link system already available to defendants in the jails in his district.
Before the court closures, which began Monday, public defenders in Baton Rouge had announced they were planning to file motions this week to have their pretrial defendants being being held on minor and nonviolent charges released and to file bond reduction requests for most other defendants.
In the fall of 2005, then-Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and the Supreme Court issued similar orders after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita swamped regions of the state, cutting off access to courthouses and dislocating thousands of court employees for weeks.
Moore argued that the threat of coronavirus and the protective measures being taken to avoid its further spread pose similar kinds of limitations for continuing the kinds of proceedings that can require dozens of people to gather together in confined spaces.
"It's really the same as being under water," Moore said. "You're still not allowed to continue to do business."
Examples of the kinds of deadlines prosecutors want to suspend temporarily include those that set the pace of actions by state to charge and bring defendants to trial or some other resolution of a criminal case.
For example, defendants who are in jail must be charged within 60 days of their arrest in Louisiana, except for first- and second-degree murder, aggravated rape and aggravated kidnapping counts. Prosecutors have 120 days from arrest to file those charges.
Prosecutors have 150 days to bring charges against someone who has been released on bail or on their own recognizance.
Prosecutors also face deadlines to bring defendants to trial so they don't languish in prison without their innocence or guilt having been determined.
Moore said that while the letter is focused on criminal cases, the prosecutors believe the same ideas should apply in the civil arena.
Moore said that while bail hearings and initial appearances are still happening in East Baton Rouge, he doesn't plan on calling the grand jury -- a key means of charging many defendants facing felonies -- and can't justify calling a few hundred people to the courthouse in Baton Rouge to sit next to each other for hours for jury trial selection.
In an attempt to slow the spread of the respiratory virus, Edwards ordered on Friday that all public schools would be closed until mid-April and barred public gatherings of 250 people or more. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since recommended that no more than 50 people gather at one time.
Moore said there has been some question about whether the Legislature must act to suspend the legal deadlines but he said he wasn't sure how long the body would continue to meet.
In November 2005, after Katrina and Rita, the Legislature adopted a bill that ratified three executive orders Blanco had ended up issuing in connection with the court systems.
The Legislature was expected to vote Monday whether to suspend its session until the end of the month.