The coronavirus outbreak has largely frozen Blaine County’s court system in place—and those working through its mechanisms will likely see delays in their cases well into the summer.
An amended order signed by the Idaho Supreme Court on April 22 will officially extend COVID-19 restrictions. Scheduled to start on Friday, May 1, the order aims to keep onsite personnel to a minimum and stipulates that hearings should take place electronically whenever possible. It also suspends jury trials through August 3 for criminal cases, and Oct. 5 for civil ones.
That may not mean much for those out on bond waiting for their case’s conclusion. But dozens remain incarcerated in the Blaine County Detention Center awaiting a jury trial or sentencing hearing.
As of Monday, April 27, there were 55 people in the Blaine County Detention Center.
Of those 55, 22 have a status of presentenced, meaning they are either still fighting their criminal charges, are in the jail on a bond amount they cannot afford or were offered no bond, or they are awaiting sentencing.
Twenty-nine of the 55 are technically in the custody of the Idaho Department of Corrections, awaiting transfer to a state penitentiary.
Two people in the jail are serving their sentences. Two more are serving discretionary time for parole violations.
Those figures include three people arrested for probation violations since March 13, Blaine County Sheriff Chief Deputy Will Fruehling said, none of which were for new charges. They are all being held without bond pending hearings.
Parole presents a problematic point of contact during the pandemic.
There are currently 248 adults on misdemeanor probation in Blaine County under supervision by the county’s probation office, according to Blaine County Chief Probation Officer Teresa Espedal. Each of those people are still responsible for meeting their supervision requirements, including monthly meetings with the probation officer and giving urine samples several times a month to test for drug and alcohol consumption if order to do so per their probation requirements.
Espedal only had information on misdemeanor probation cases in the county, and Kevin Wayt, the Idaho Department of Correction’s felony probation officer for Blaine County, did not reply to a request for comment on the number of felony probationers currently in the county.
Blaine County Chief Public Defender Justin McCarthy tried to mitigate the number of people entering the jail for probation violations in March. Twice he proposed an administrative order to the Blaine County court judges that would have eliminated one element of supervised probation—drug testing. It was denied both times.
The order would have suspended drug testing for pretrial defendants and probationers who are not at high risk and are non-violent.
“[C]ontinued testing puts those conducting compliance, defendants and probationers at greater risk of contracting COVID 19,” the proposed order stated. McCarthy also noted that contract service providers who work on behalf of Blaine County Pretrial Services and Probation “regularly conduct meetings with defendants and probationers and collects urine samples for compliance with court orders for sobriety,” putting those providers at risk of contracting the virus through their work.
And with unemployment sky rocking due to COVID-19, some might not be able to afford testing, or find transportation to the testing site.
“We do not want defendants and probationers exposed or spreading this virus out of concern of violating their conditions or sentencing requirements,” McCarthy said in an email to the Mountain Express earlier this month.
County prosecutors were opposed to McCarthy’s proposed order.
“It is our position that certain Defendants require drug and alcohol monitoring in order to keep the community safe,” Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Matt Fredback said in an email to the Mountain Express last week. “Our drug testing facility has taken special precautions to limit the possibility of exposure to the coronavirus and are working with defendants and probationers to safely administer testing.”
Blaine County Judges Ned Williamson and Jennifer Haemmerle agreed.
“Any terms of pre-trial release, including testing, are properly de-termined on a case by case basis under proper application of Idaho criminal rules,” they said in a joint to the Idaho Mountain Express.
In a Mountain Express article published April 1, the sheriff’s office stated that it had implemented a number of operational changes including no longer accepting new prisoners sent by neighboring counties or the state, suspending inmate programs and in person visits and beginning a screening process for incoming inmates for COVID-19 symptoms. In addition, several hand sanitizer dispensers were installed throughout the public safety building for staff.
Blaine County Sheriff Steve Harkins had nothing further to add regarding mitigating efforts in the jail and asked the Mountain Express to rely on information previously provided to the newspaper.