It has been several months since the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 in the United States. Since that time, multiple non-essential businesses have shut their doors to the public and multiple essential businesses adopted measures to limit the virus’ spread. The Georgia courts are no exception – until May 13, all courts throughout Georgia will only be hearing essential matters. But what is considered an essential matter, and what should you expect if you have an essential hearing on the calendar? Contact the Don Turner Legal Team today if you are facing an essential court matter.
Chief Justice Harold D. Melton declared a statewide judicial emergency on March 14, hereby closing all courts for non-essential matters, in order to help limit the spread of COVID-19. Although this order was originally set to expire by April 13, the mounting number of COVID-19 cases across the United States led to this order being extended into May 13. As of this writing, Georgia courts are still set to reopen by May 13; however, there is a chance that the order could be extended another 30 days.
The rules for what is considered an essential hearing are clearly laid out in Justice Melton’s emergency judicial order. To put it simply, if you have an immediate liberty or safety concern that requires the full attention of the court, then your hearing is still on the calendar. Any other hearing has been rescheduled and may be rescheduled further, depending on the needs of the court. Specifically, the following hearings are named as essential, per the emergency order:
- Arrest Warrants and Search Warrants: An arrest warrant is a legal authorization from the court which allows police to detain an individual and keep them in custody for a period of time. A search warrant allows police to search a given location for evidence. Note that police do not need a warrant if they witness illegal activity taking place, or the individual consents to a search.
- Initial Appearances: During an initial appearance, a person accused of a crime is made aware of the charges against them. Initial appearances take place in magistrate court and must occur within 72 hours of the accused’s arrest if an arrest warrant was present. If the accused was arrested without a warrant, the initial appearance must instead occur within 48 hours. During an initial appearance, the judge will also determine whether the accused can afford an attorney or not.
- Bond Reviews: When a person is taken into custody and formally charged with an offense, they may be able to get out of jail by obtaining a bond. In a bond review hearing, the judge determines whether a bond should be issued, if the amount owed should be modified in any way, and what conditions may be attached to this bond, were the client to be released from custody and able to post said bond.
- Temporary Protective Order Hearings: A temporary protective order (TPO), otherwise known as a restraining order is a court order that prevents a given individual from contacting you. Georgia has specifically agreed to hear TPO hearings involving domestic violence, an issue that has become a major concern in the wake of state shelter-in-place orders. A domestic violence TPO will be issued after a court hearing in which the accused abuser and the alleged abused party present their sides of the story and evidence to the judge.
- Emergency Removals: If a child is allegedly being abused or neglected, an emergency removal order authorizes the court to take custody of the child. In order to obtain an emergency removal order, a petition must be issued upon the court. Said petition must establish that a) the child would suffer severe or permanent injuries if they are returned to their legal guardian and that b) reasonable attempts to prevent removal have already been made, and there are no further alternatives outside of removing the child from their home.
- Mental Health Commitment Hearings: If someone is deemed by the court to have a severe mental disorder that impairs their ability to reason, they can be involuntarily committed into inpatient treatment. In order for someone to be involuntarily committed, they must be established as being an imminent danger to themselves or those around them or unable to properly care for themselves due to their mental illness.
- Juvenile Court Delinquency Detention Hearings: Under Georgia law, if a juvenile is alleged to be delinquent, a detention hearing will be held to determine whether or not they should be taken into custody. If the alleged delinquent was already detained, this hearing will be held no less than two business days from the date of their detention if there was no arrest warrant and five business days if an arrest warrant was present). If a delinquency detention hearing is not heard within this time frame, the child will be released from detention.
Note that if you have an emergency hearing on the calendar, you will not necessarily be required to physically attend court. Select courts in Georgia are allowing certain court appearances to be made virtually using video-conferencing tools. Contact your court to see if this is an option available to you.
Right now, Georgia is on a gradual road to recovery. Governor Brian Kemp has allowed select businesses, including theaters, dine-in restaurants, salons, and tattoo parlors to reopen and has been aggressively stepping up the amount of testing for COVID-19 in Georgia. Meanwhile, Georgia’s state shelter in place order expired on April 30, 2020, although Governor Kemp has requested that the elderly and medically fragile continue to shelter in place until June 12, 2020.
It remains to be seen if Georgia courts will join the rest of the state in reopening come May 13, or if their doors will remain closed for most matters for a while longer. Until then, be aware that the above-mentioned hearings will still be heard by the court. If you are facing an essential court matter, contact the Don Turner Legal Team and see how we can help you with your case