The person who tested positive for COVID-19 in Pueblo County Friday is a public defender. As a result, new steps have been taken in the local criminal justice system concerning the coronavirus pandemic.
Pueblo District Attorney Jeff Chostner, as well as other sources, confirmed Tuesday that the infected person works in the Pueblo public defenders office, which has been closed since Friday.
An investigation by the health department determined the man who tested positive for COVID-19 was never in contact with anyone from the Pueblo County jail, according to Gayle Perez, the public information officer for the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office.
Chostner said the fact that the person was within the justice system made the pandemic hit home.
“It definitely made it more real. It took it from the abstract to cases with actual people we knew,” Chostner said.
He said it is very important that the system looks to the protection of its employees and all people involved in criminal justice to include the defendants and all people associated with it.
“That includes probation personnel, parole personnel court administrative staff, public defenders and prosecutors to try to protect those people from the worst effects of this virus.”
Chostner said, at the same time, it is important to keep moving forward with certain portions of the criminal justice system.
Chostner said he, lead public defender Alby Singleton, Chief Judge Deb Eyler and Dave Semital from probation held a teleconference Monday to address court issues.
Some cases will halt until April 3.
“We kind of kicked the can down the road a couple weeks to see what the situation is then,” Chostner said.
Chostner said county court pretrials and first-appearance hearings will be delayed until May 18.
“There is an encouragement to try to settle cases the best we can, especially minor cases that we can move along and get through the system. We will continue to try to do that,” Chostner said.
Kyle Aber, president of the Pueblo County Bar Association, said he has heard from attorneys in the community that are concerned about the risks posed by COVID-19 and the fact that judicial business is continuing.
“The unfortunate truth of the matter is that lawyers and the courts provide important services to the community and it is impractical to shut those services off completely,” Aber said.
“Even during a public health emergency the courts have to fulfill their vital role, just as we expect from health workers and emergency service providers.”
Aber said criminal cases are still ongoing and new arrests are being made every day; the courts have to ensure that the rights of both defendants and victims are being addressed without delay. “The Court cannot delay cases involving dependency and neglect or even simple custody issues. Even in civil disputes over money delays can have severe consequences for the parties,” Aber said. “This are just a few examples of why it is impractical for the courts to close completely. While not all of these things are important to the community as a whole they are important to the people involved, and in many cases a delay of even a month could have disastrous consequences.”
Aber said with that being said every one that needs to go to the courthouse, or even to their lawyer’s office should be careful to take the steps to avoid contracting the virus that have already been laid out by health officials.
“I encourage the legal community to avoid face to face interaction where possible and to delay cases when it can be done without harming the parties,” Aber said.
“As a group we can work to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus but ultimately, it is simply not possible for the legal community or the courts to cease doing business in full.”
Chostner said each branch of the local judicial system had guidance from their different higher offices.
“Alby was talking to the state public defender. I was working with the Colorado District Attorney’s Council and Judge Eyler was taking direction from the (Colorado) Supreme Court,” Chostner said.
“We wanted to get all the information that we could over the weekend and then we got together to talk. We are going to talk again Wednesday (today) to make sure that nothing has really changed or if there are things to change.
“I think the agreement that we’ve come to is the best we could do in terms of trying to keep moving and yet doing it with an eye to protect people,” Chostner said.
“We are wishing our public defender colleagues well and we hope the folks in our office can sidestep this as well, to the extent that we can,” Chostner said.