ELLSWORTH — With the exception of police, everything to do with justice or the application of it has closed temporarily in an effort to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus.
“The Maine Judicial Branch has basically shut down the courts for everything except in-custody arraignments and emergency hearings until after May 1,” said Matt Foster, district attorney for Hancock and Washington counties. No jury trials will be held.
On Monday, the Maine Superior Court and District Court issued an order vacating outstanding warrants for unpaid fines, unpaid restitution and any other failure to appear and pay fees.
A spokesman for the judicial system said the court will continue to hear the following:
- Motions for review of bail.
- Juvenile detention hearings.
- Protection from abuse requests and hearings.
- Protection from harassment requests and hearings.
- Child protection petitions and hearings.
- Mental health requests and hearings.
The Hancock County Jail is operating, of course, but is closed to visitors.
“We’re realistically closing everything down,” said Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane on Tuesday. “We’ve closed the jail to visitors.”
To that end, the sheriff has asked the area police chiefs to issue summonses — slips of paper with a directive to appear in court on a charge once courts are operational again — as much as possible instead of making arrests.
“I understand some people and some situations, there needs to be an arrest made,” Kane said.
Those prospective inmates who are being taken to the jail have additional questions to answer in light of the coronavirus. “‘Have you traveled outside the state or outside the country recently,’ those types of questions,” Kane said.
“We’ve closed this office down so you can’t get in,” Kane said. “We’re trying to minimize the contact we have with the public.”
If you need help, call the Hancock County Regional Communications Center at 667-7575 or 911 if there’s an emergency.
“We’re suspending the civil process service,” Kane said. “Court’s closed until May 1, so obviously there’s no sense in serving papers.”
In-custody arraignments, at this point, will still occur in front of a judge, at least in Hancock County.
“It is very likely that a prosecutor and a defense attorney will need to be physically present in the court with a judge, defendants, court security and corrections officers,” Foster said. “We haven’t got a firm answer from the Ellsworth Court on what the procedure will be at this point.”
Foster said the Washington County Jail is much better equipped to handle remote court appearances. “They have an ITV system in the jail, which allows prisoners to be seen remotely,” he said.
Deputies are still patrolling and handling complaints but contact with the public is being minimized as much as possible, the sheriff said.
Deputies and the Maine State Police are equipped with protective gear.
“Everyone has eye protection, hand sanitizer and a bottle of spray sanitizer,” Kane said. “We have those personal protective disposal gowns. We have face masks.”
Maine State Police spokesman Steve McCausland said troopers were prepared before the coronavirus outbreak to respond to incidents involving viruses.
Meanwhile, local firefighters and first responders are doing their best to respond to incidents while keeping themselves healthy.
If you need a burn permit, call your fire department first. It’s likely that those are being issued over the phone.
The Hancock County Firefighters’ Association canceled its March meeting.
“We are cancelling our meeting not so much out of concern for each individual’s safety (although that is certainly important), but to remove one method that the virus could be more quickly spread throughout the county,” stated association President Tom Morris in a letter to members.
Firefighters and first responders are following the direction of Maine Emergency Management Services and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention: limiting exposed personnel to only those necessary and to make sure they are clad with respirators, goggles and protective clothing, Morris said. There are procedures in place for cleaning those items after the equipment has been exposed to pathogens.
“If it is a scene that also requires other fire department personnel, they will wear their full turnout gear and use Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), which will also be decontaminated following the incident,” Morris said. “Any personnel that are improperly exposed will be quarantined.”