Be prepared to have your temperature taken and to answer a set of questions when you have business at the courthouses in Whitfield and Murray counties.
That’s the word from two judges, Chief Judge of the Superior Court William Boyett and Probate Judge Sheri Blevins, during the latest County Connect show livestreamed on the Whitfield County website Thursday afternoon with host Lynn Laughter, County Commission chair.
“Deputies at the front door of the courthouses will take your temperature and ask some standard questions like have you returned from overseas in the last 14 days and have you been around anybody infected (with COVID-19),” Judge Boyett said. “If the fever is over 100.7, we suggest they go see their doctor and not come in the courthouse.”
Social distancing will also be the norm, and the sheriff is putting markers in courtrooms where the audience would sit so that everybody can be sure to sit six feet apart. “We will also limit the number of people that can come into courtrooms,” Judge Boyett said. “When they get to that number, nobody else can come in.”
The local judges are following a second order issued Monday by Chief Judge Harold D. Melton of the Supreme Court of Georgia, addressing continuation of essential court services and the re-opening of non-essential court services through June 12, unless extended.
“We can’t just close up shop and go home,” Judge Boyett said. “If there’s an immediate liberty or safety concern concerning some party, we have to be here to deal with it. If there’s a need for a search warrant in a criminal case, a judge has to sign it. If somebody’s in jail on a bond and they want to move to reduce the bond or do away with the bond, they’re entitled to file that motion and we have to hear it.”
The Superior Courts have been using video teleconferencing to deal with inmates for years, Judge Boyett said. “That’s not something we started doing because of the virus,” he said. “We’ve done that a long time because it saves the sheriff from having to drive people over to the courthouse and back. It’s just a much better way to do it.”
Once life returns to normal, he expects video to keep playing a vital role in the administration of justice and believes that the current use of Zoom software to hold hearings may also continue. “You can have a hearing with lawyers from Atlanta, lawyers from Rome, lawyers all over the state, and everybody stays where they are,” he said.
Jury trials, meanwhile, continue to be postponed until at least June 12 under the continuance of the judicial emergency declared by the Georgia Supreme Court.
“We can’t have jury trials because you just can’t impanel a jury unless you have a hundred or so people there and everybody can’t be six feet apart and have that many people there,” Judge Boyett said. “And you have to have that when you’re striking as many juries as we strike for two judges in a given week. All of that is postponed as of now until June 12 when this order expires. Of course, it may be extended depending on what happens.”
Judge Boyett says there will be a backlog of cases when trials are able to resume, explaining that criminal trials will have priority before civil and domestic cases. “We’ll just start and work till we can get it cleared and do the best we can,” he said. “That’s all any of us can do.”
He doesn’t expect to have to hire additional staff to handle the backlog, though he says it may be necessary to add additional weeks of jury trials to the master calendar.
During the judicial emergency, certain statutes of limitation and filing requirements have been suspended by the Supreme Court, alleviating some of the time pressures.
Meanwhile, the new court order allows probate courts to do more than just essential functions.
“For the past two months, we’ve just been doing the essential services,” Judge Blevins said. “But now we are actually authorized to do some other things to the extent that we can do so safely.”
She says if you have business in the probate court, it’s best to leave other family members at home or in the car.
Judge Blevins says customers must call (706) 275-7400 to make an appointment for services. She suggests trying to mail in applications as much as possible and calling the office staff to ask questions. “We’re doing what we can to keep people safe and away from large crowds,” she said.
The office had been issuing marriage licenses only for people who had wedding dates scheduled during the judicial emergency, but “we’re opening that up a little bit now,” she said. “Again you’ll need an appointment to come in. Just call our office and you can get an appointment very easily because we don’t want a crowd of people in the lobby. We’re trying to keep social distancing and not have a lot of people in our office at a time. We’re also sanitizing surfaces between customers.”
She’s seen “quite a lot” of interest in weapons carry licenses. If you just want to renew your license, you can print an application off the probate court website, fill it out, and mail it in with a $30 money order. Be sure to sign the application in front of a notary public, Judge Blevins said.
For new licenses, you’ll need to make an appointment to come into the office and have your fingerprints and photo taken. “This is a very up-close and personal contact with the public,” Judge Blevins said. “This is the closest thing we do because we’re basically having to hold hands with you and get your fingerprints, so please wear a mask because you will be right on top of our staff in that case.”
She says the fastest way to get a new carry license is to print out the application, fill it out, sign it in front of a notary, make a copy of your driver’s license, get a money order for $76, and mail all that to the office. “Once we get that, we will contact you and schedule an appointment for you to come in and be fingerprinted and take your picture and capture your signature – all the things that have to happen to get your permit.”
Judge Blevins also said that anyone worried because their carry permit has expired should relax because Governor Brian Kemp signed an executive order that extends the permit for 120 days. “So if your permit expired between Feb. 12 and June 12, you get an extra 120 days,” she said. “Whatever your expiration date is, go out 120 days and you have that long to renew, not just 30 days normally.”
As for traffic arraignments, Judge Blevins says arraignments will be postponed past June 12. “We can’t do traffic like in the past where we’ve got 150 people in the courtroom on arraignment day,” she said, “because we’re not allowed to. Those are big gatherings of people, and the judicial emergency [doesn’t allow] that.”
She says information will be mailed to offenders at the address on their citation. If you want to plead not guilty, a trial will be scheduled after the emergency order expires. If you want to plead guilty and pay the ticket, you can do that without reporting to the courthouse. However, if you want to pay your fine in person, you can call the office at 706-275-7400 upon arrival at the courthouse and a staff member will come and open the door for you.
Meanwhile, Claude Craig, Whitfield Emergency Management director, says he believes the county has hit the apex of the curve and is heading in the other direction, “the way we want to see it, and that’s a good, positive thing for us to be looking at moving forward.”
He says four people are in Hamilton Medical Center with COVID-19 now, and none is on a ventilator. In fact, the number of patients using ventilators in the entire state has declined to 834 from 931 over the past week. In Georgia, 285,881 tests have been given, with 35,838 positive results. Mr. Craig noted that the state has recorded 1,527 deaths but that means 34,371 people have “somewhat recovered.”
Commissioner Laughter recommended that residents continue to practice social distancing and wear masks in public.
The next “County Connect” show will be Thursday, May 21, at 5 p.m. You can watch all the shows online on the county’s website.
Questions for the county commissioners can be sent by e-mail to Laughter at email@example.com, Harold Brooker at firstname.lastname@example.org, Roger Crossen at email@example.com, Greg Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Barry Robbins at email@example.com. You can also call the county offices at (706) 275-7500.
Commissioner Laughter pointed out that county administrative buildings re-opened to the public on April 27, with social distancing and other safety measures in practice.
She also said free COVID-19 testing over the weekend at the Whitfield County Health Department in Dalton was such a success, they’re doing it again this weekend. Schedule an appointment Saturday, May 16 (9 a.m. – 12 p.m.) and Sunday, May 17 (starting at 1 p.m.) by calling 888-881-1474.