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Defense attorneys to police: Stop jailing certain offenders during coronavirus pandemic

Not every offense requires being booked into jail. Defense attorneys say issuing notices to appear reduces the chance someone could be infected while behind bars.
An undated photo of an inmate pod at the Falkenburg Road Jail in Hillsborough County. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]
An undated photo of an inmate pod at the Falkenburg Road Jail in Hillsborough County. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]

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Concerned about the spread of coronavirus in county jails, a state association of defense attorneys issued a statement Thursday asking law enforcement to forego arresting some defendants and instead issue them notices to appear in court.

The notices carry the same weight as an arrest but allow law enforcement agencies too forego the usual process of driving them to the jail, booking them and keeping them there until they or someone else posts bail. Typically, people with ties to the community who don’t have a history of failing to appear in court are eligible.

The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers issued a statement saying that during the pandemic, the practice of issuing notices to appear "can reduce the number of persons processed through local detention facilities and minimize the risk of contact with infected persons.”

They group, which represents about 1,400 criminal defense lawyers, is also demanding Gov. Ron DeSantis order free COVID-19 testing for inmates and staff currently in jails and pre-trial detention centers.

“Thousands of inmates, staff, correctional officers, visitors and professional service providers pass through our county jails and pre-trial detention facilities daily,” the statement says. “Free and immediate testing should be made available to all who work in or incarcerated in such facilities in order to isolate any cases and to contain any further spread.”

Florida’s county jails are typically overseen by each county’s Sheriff’s Office. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said there have been no discussions within the association about the defense attorneys’ requests. He said a Tampa Bay Times’ reporter’s question was the first he’d heard of it.

The statement was issued amid a flurry of cancellations and postponements that have impeded everyday life in Florida and beyond, including within the legal system.

The chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court handed down an administrative order Friday suspending face-to-face legal proceedings for two weeks and authorizing local courts to hold electronic proceedings when possible.

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