AURORA | Courts across Aurora are bracing for inundated dockets and a flood of filings after prolonged closures due to COVID-19, officials say.
Municipal courts in Aurora, as well as local district courts that handle more serious crimes, have been largely shuttered since the middle of last month, handling only “emergency” measures and allegations that must be heard per state statute.
When all of those cases reappear in June, July and August, dockets could become overwhelmed, attorneys warn.
“When July comes, my concern is it’s going to be a caca storm,” Aurora’s Chief Public Defender Doug Wilson told city council members Thursday. ” … We’re going to have to run double dockets. It’s going to be a mess.”
For the past month, Wilson has been working with the city’s court administration department and city attorneys to gird for what appears to be an impending tsunami, furiously filing motions and working through more than a 100 pending cases to try to bring them to resolution.
At a public safety briefing Thursday, he said his concerns are compounded by the notion that more defendants could be applying for public defenders in the coming months as people continue to lose their wages and become eligible to qualify as indigent. More than 230,000 Coloradans have filed for unemployment in the past month.
“I suspect we’re going to get a lot more clients as a result of the economic downturn because that’s what I saw in 2008 at the state level,” said Wilson, who for years worked at the state office of the public defender before taking the helm in Aurora in January.
To handle the increased case loads, presiding Municipal Judge Shawn Day has started mulling how to open additional court rooms, but how those facilities will be staffed remains to be seen, according to Assistant City Attorney Julie Heckman.
“We don’t just have that extra personnel lying around,” she said.
Municipal court staffers have already been scrambling to reschedule all cases for 91 days. The delays have required workers to re-issue new subpoenas and court dates to all witnesses, defendants and victims previously scheduled to appear this spring. Recently, the court also decided to continue nine additional jury trials previously slated to be held in May.
There’s a chance the entire process could be kickstarted yet again if stay-at-home orders are extended past the end of April, Heckman said.
“The thought of having to make all my people do this again, it’s crazy,” Heckman said last month.
That flurry of new dates and paperwork could further complicate an already thorny process for people who may be unfamiliar with the court system, she added.
“Absolutely we know there’s a lot of confusion for folks,” Heckman said.
While filing numbers remain down in courts across the state, the full effects of the prolonged delays likely won’t be apparent until summonses issued this spring begin appearing on summer dockets, attorneys say. Local police and sheriff’s deputies have been instructed to issue summonses in lieu of physical arrests when possible to reduce jail populations and physical contact with suspects.
In Aurora, that resulted in a 22 percent drop in the number of physical arrests between February and March, according to statistics provided by the Aurora Police Department. Officers issued 365 criminal summonses, which is a drop from the 418 such citations issued in February but a bump from the 350 handed out in January.
“People are being summonsed way out,” Matt Maillaro, assistant district attorney in the 18th Judicial District, recently told The Sentinel. “What we’re going to have is this dip, and then it’s going to blow up a bit down the road.”
In Maillaro’s jurisdiction, Chief Judge Michelle Amico has cancelled jury calls through May 15 and postponed most physical court appearances until next month. The same goes for north Aurora’s Adams County portion in the 17th Judicial District.
“In mid-May, we’re going to see a lot of people coming into court,” Maillaro said. “And that is not going to be a good day for my people, frankly, and it’s not going to be a good day for the justice system. It’s going to be really busy, but we’ll get through it.”
What that means for the attorneys across the lectern from Maillaro’s staffers also remains foggy, according to Maureen Cain, director of legislative policy and external communications for the state office of the Colorado state public defender.
“I don know what courthouse operations are going to look like this summer,” Cain said. “So we can’t particularly plan for what we don’t know.”
However, she said she’s nervous that shortfalls in revenue could mean less money and fewer resources for court-appointed counsel across the state just as client numbers balloon.
“We might have actually reduced resources when our case loads are going up,” she said.
The state Legislature’s joint budget committee, which is tasked with analyzing state coffers each year, is expected to meet early next month to re-assess allocations.
For attorneys and other staffers in Aurora Municipal Court, similar uncertainty persists. The court is eyeing re-opening to the public — it has remained open for certain mandatory filings, such as domestic violence cases — early next month, but no dates have been finalized, according to court administrators.
“We’re all trying to see how we can get ahead of the game,” Heckman said. “Although we don’t know when the game begins.”