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Hillsborough courts prepare to bring back jurors with social distancing measures in place

Posted at 10:58 PM, Sep 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-24 23:28:02-04

TAMPA, Fla. -- The courthouse in Hillsborough County is quieter due to the pandemic, but next month, court officials are looking to ramp jury duty back up for the 13th Judicial Circuit.

“Our courts have been open and we’ve been working. We’ve been disposing of cases but one of the things we couldn’t do was have a jury trial. And jury trials, the right to trial by jury, is really one of the cornerstones of our great country and it’s so important to our civil justice and our criminal justice. With COVID, we haven’t been able to have these jury trials,” said Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta.

The Hillsborough County Clerk of the Circuit Court’s office said they’ve sent out more than 4,000 summons this week alone.

“Our number-one priority is to keep them safe,” said Doug Bakke, the office’s chief operating officer.

So potential jurors will find new procedures in place.

Bakke said there are questions about COVID-19 on the form.

“They even expanded the reasons why you can be excused or have your service postponed. If you’ve been individually affected by COVID-19, either through yourself or a close family member, you can ask to be excused or postponed,” he said. “Also financial conditions. If you’ve been unemployed or recently returned to work after not working you can also ask for a deferral or an outright excusal from jury duty.”

Once you get to the courthouse, you must wear a mask, answer health questions and have your temperature taken.

Inside, seats are distanced in the juror auditorium and they’re working to limit how many people are there at a time.

Court officials said the first week, they’re looking bring in around 200 juror each day with two separate panels. If they’re not pulled into a courtroom to be selected for a jury within a few hours, they’ll be dismissed. After that at the end of October, they’ll move to three panels per day.

“We’re really enhancing the sanitation of the areas making sure everything is clean before the jurors come in as we dismissed those earlier panels we’ll have our facilities teams come in sanitize the area so when that next group comes in be nice and tidy for 'em,” said Bakke.

Inside the courtroom, there are clear masks and face shields for witnesses and jurors to use when needed. The juror box also has distanced seating.

“Jury duty is one of the highest forms of civic duty civic responsibility a citizen can be called upon to perform. It’s very important the citizens know that our courthouse is going to be as safe as possible for them,” said Chief Judge Ficarrotta.

Chief Judge Ficarrotta said they've been working the state attorney and public defender to identify and prioritize which cases go first.