The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

Blaine County Courts remain vigilant during COVID-19 Pandemic


June 10, 2020

The Judicial system in Blaine County had to make several changes to the way they conducted business the past few months during the COVID-19 Pandemic and the restrictions put in place by Governor Bullock to help limit the spread of the virus. Local courts did a fantastic job in ensuring the rights of all charged individuals were met with due diligence. Blaine County Justice of the Peace staff include Judge Perry Miller, Cindy Dennis and Jim Doyle.

While many government offices, local businesses and schools were forced to dramatically reduce staff and exposure to the public, or in many case close completely due to COVID-19 Restrictions put in place by Governor Steve Bullock, the Judicial systems at the local, county, state and federal levels continued to meet the constitutional right of all those charged. Judge Perry Miller, the office of Blaine County Attorney Kelsie Harwood as well as District Court Judge Yvonne Laird all exemplified true professionalism and public service during these tough and incredibly abnormal times.

In adjusting to the current situation these offices applied the necessary changes seamlessly while maintaining their ability to protect those individuals charged, law enforcement, court personal and the public.

Changes are most recognizable in the Gallery. Prior to COVID-19 restrictions the Gallery seating was side by side and could seat well more than 100 visitors. The new seating arrangement meets social distancing guidelines put in place by Governor Bullock's mandate that conforms with recommendations from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as well as State and Local Health Departments. Chairs have been placed in four rows of six. Gallery seating chairs have been placed six feet apart for a seating capacity of 24. Visitors will obviously be limited and in most cases will be determined by a first come first seated bases with exceptions possibly being made for family and special guests. They have not determined a final plan as to media exceptions and have also held out the possibility of using a portion of the gallery seating for the 12 jurors selected upon completion of "voir dire".

Currently the tentative plan for "voir dire", more commonly known as the jury selection process, is to have respondents from the jury pool report to the Commercial Building at the Blaine County Fairgrounds to be selected by representative lawyers from the Blaine County Attorney's Office as well as lawyers for the defense team.

During the lock-down court proceedings were held judicially and fulfilled the Constitutional rights afforded to all charged individuals. This meant that no jury trials were able to occur due to quarantine restrictions, but all cases were able to be concluded satisfactorily to all involved parties.

To fulfill the need to provide defendants with the ability to provide an adequate defense as well as to give the Blaine County Attorney's Office the same opportunity to prosecute court appearances and proceedings were conducted through the use of Polycon which is made possible through use of the Judicial Video Network (JVN). This is a password virtual meeting room and is able to connect video of incarcerated individuals to appear from the Valley County Detention Center located in Glasgow, MT. The system also is used for prosecutors and lawyers to appear from multiple locations including the Federal Courthouse in Great Falls, MT.

"This is such a useful system and saves so much time and money. Rather than transporting inmates to appear in person or to require lawyers, witness and other personnel to drive potentially hundreds of miles to appear for a 10 minutes hearing, this makes so much more sense," stated Blaine County Attorney Kelsie Harwood. She went on to say, "We have used this system quit often prior to stay at home orders but it has been used specifically since the lock-down was mandated."

The added necessity for the use of video and audio technology through the events of the COVID-19 pandemic has been really invaluable in keeping proceedings moving forward. We certainly don't want to delay the rights of those individuals charged," added Harwood.

District Court Judge Perry Miller echoed Harwood's statement, "We have relaxed things a bit and are allowing visitors in a limited capacity in recent days but during the lock-down no proceedings were held in the courtroom. All defendants have the right to appear in person and those who chose this option were checked in at the front entrance to the courthouse and taken, one at a time, up the elevator to appear solely in the Hearing Room."

"When the orders came down from the Governor's Office to close, we were ordered by the Chief Justice that courts were to remain open, regardless of the mandate and to conduct the cases before us using the JVN," stated Miller.

One other notable change is a new jury questioner form that now determines whether a prospective juror is a 'high risk individual' for COVID-19.

If the individual has recently traveled out of state or they feel they may have been exposed to virus. These individuals are asked to notify the courts and they will have their concerns be addressed and, in all likelihood, dismissed from the selection process.

During the lock-down masks were required by all visitors but are now considered optional. Those wanting a mask provided to them will receive one and is provided by Haley Velk from the Disaster Emergency Services office and Jana Hauer of the Blaine County Health Department. Velk and Hauer will also do prescreening on all individuals required to appear for the juror selection process. This process allows for courthouse employees to sanitize and clean after each proceeding.

The Blaine County Courthouse still has only the main entrance to the building open and now has an attendant stationed at the entry point to assist visitors. Rilee Conlan will help guide visitors to their desired destination as well as keep a record of the number of guests in the building at any given time.

During the crisis the courts quit issuing warrants with the exception of aggreges crimes. Officers simply notified defendants to contact the court immediately. The purpose was to limit potential exposure of the virus to the jail population as well as law enforcement and done so solely due to COVID-19. This mandate remained in place until May 4 at which time the courts began issuing warrants again. Prior to May 24 renter evictions were eliminated but this order was lifted on May 25.

People are still encouraged to go through their court process as remotely as possible using services provided or by other means of social media such as Zoom. As the new normal of court proceedings begin to take place Harwood maintains the effectiveness of its use, "We recently had a case where the defendant was in Tennessee and appeared through the use of Zoom in a conference call. His lawyer was physically in the court room and our court reporter/stenographer was connected through the JVN in Valley County. Once we got everyone connected the proceedings went off without a hitch."

The Blaine County Attorneys' Office consists of Blaine County Attorney Kelsie Harwood. Kelsie has held this position since 2015 after previously serving as the Assistant Blaine County Attorney since March of 2013. She is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Law and is a graduate of Chinook High School. Eric Owens serves as the Assistant Blaine County Attorney. Eric ia an Alaskan native as well as a 2007 graduate of Gonzaga University. He has held this position since April of 2017. Rebecca Blankenship is the Blaine County Attorney's' office Paralegal and serves as the Human Resource officer. Rebecca is a graduate of Chinook High School and has been in her position since January of 2017.

"We're very fortunate to have a very good working relationship with each other," stated Harwood. "We discuss openly case management as well as appropriate charging decisions. It's a true team environment and one we are all very grateful for. It is so nice to work, and it be a place you enjoy being at."

The Justice Court team consists of Justice of the Peace Judge Perry Miller, Jim Doyle and Cindy Dennis. This trio of All-stars have been together serving the citizens of Blaine County for many years and offers true stability to the department while always maintaining a high level of public service.

The Judicial system in Blaine County had to make several changes to the way they conducted business the past few months during the COVID-19 Pandemic and the restrictions put in place by Governor Bullock to help limit the spread of the virus. Local courts did a fantastic job in ensuring the rights of all charged individuals were met with due diligence. The Blaine County Attorney's Office consists of Assistant County Attorney Eric Owens, Paralegal/Human Resource Officer Rebecca Blankenship and Blaine County Attorney Kelsie Harwood.

In proceeding through these difficult times, the Blaine County Courthouse has performed admirably while developing some significant changes in the process. "The biggest issue I think during this COVID-19 crisis has been Administrative/Personnel management, "Harwood said. "In response the Blaine County Commissioners developed a COVID-19 Administrative Team which essentially gave employees 15 days to be at home or with kids or if they were feeling sick or symptomatic with COVID-19 symptoms. These 15 days would not be charged to their vacation or sick leave they already had coming."

In addition, the Commissioners worked closely with the Blaine County Health Department and Jessica Sheehy, Blaine County Health Officer and CPA at Northern Montana Hospital in Havre. This group determined appropriated actions to be taken that were in line with CDC recommendations and to keep these restrictions as minimal as possible.

Harwood added that there was a big push from the ACLU to have inmates released from custody. "We took a look at our jail roster, those individuals incarcerated awaiting pre-sentencing as well as those already convicted and found the number to be just one. We also did not incarcerate pre-trial with the exception of violent offenders."


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