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With the shutdowns of the court buildings in Harvey County, the essential business of the courts is getting done but not being conducted in the usual way.
The City of Newton facilities, which include the Newton Municipal Court and the Harvey County Courthouse, which includes the district court, are all closed, but legal proceedings are still taking place.
With the Newton City Building closing to the public beginning Wednesday morning, much of the business of the Municipal Court will be moving forward, just online.
“We’re utilizing virtual court software,” municipal court administrator Greg Nickel said. “It integrates our current software with Skype or Zoom. It’s pretty new and innovative and not a lot of courts are using it yet. We’re using it for both criminal cases and ordinance violations such as dog violations or traffic violations.”
The municipal court handles mainly violations of city laws, both criminal and ordinance offenses. According to the city website, these include “drug and alcohol violations, worthless check offenses, DUIs, routine local traffic citations, animal control violations, parking violations, nuisance and other property violations, local ordinance offenses (fireworks, noise and curfew violations, etc.) and miscellaneous misdemeanor offenses (assault, battery, trespassing, theft, etc.).”
Nickel said many of the meetings between judges, lawyers and the city attorney that may have been held face-to-face are now being held by telephone or by video conferencing.
“I’m pretty proud of the way we’ve been able to embrace technology to keep the wheels of justice moving,” Nickel said. “This is important both for the courts themselves and for the victims, so they can have a sense of justice.”
The district court, located inside the Harvey County Courthouse, had its business restricted by order of the Kansas Supreme Court.
In that order, all civil and criminal trials scheduled to begin have been continued until further notice. Trials in progress as of March 18 may continue at the discretion of the trial judge. Time limits and court deadlines are indefinitely suspended until further order of Marla Luckert, chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Emergency operations permitted include six situations in criminal cases, including “determining probably cause for persons arrested without a warrant (within 48 hours of arrest) … (bond may be set)” and “conducting first appearances … (‘without unnecessary delay’).”
In juvenile offender cases, detention hearings can be held, as well as issuing warrants.
Hearings may be held for commitment of sexually violent predators and two cases of issuing emergency custody orders.
The complete list is available at https://www.kscourts.org/KSCourts/media/KsCourts/Orders/2020PR16.pdf?ext=.pdf.
The order encourages any emergency operation to be conducted “by two-way electronic audio-visual communication.”
Both “essential and non-essential personnel may work remotely.”
Officials with the Harvey County District Court could not be reached for comment.
Newton attorney Don Snapp, who practices criminal defense, domestic, probate and general law practice, said he’s had a lot of cases postponed because of the closure.
“They’ve continued all of my hearings for the next two weeks until further notice,” Snapp said. “I’ve been talking with the country attorney. They’ve released everyone who isn’t considered dangerous. I have some cases in Sedgwick County. In an email with the (district attorney), they have been releasing people there.”
Snapp said he can still make filings with the courts electronically.
Snapp said the shutdowns have allowed him to catch up on work in other areas. He said he’s had an uptick in the number of clients looking to draw up wills.