COA rules COVID dangers allowed for continuance in criminal trial

The Court of Appeals of Indiana found the Fulton Superior Court’s failure to hold a timely jury trial after the defendant filed a motion for a speedy trial was not grounds to overturn the conviction because the COVID-19 pandemic created an emergency that allowed for the delay.

On Nov. 30, 2020, Tyler Smith was charged with attempted murder, a Level 1 felony; aggravated battery, a Level 3 felony; and criminal recklessness, a Level 6 felony. He filed a motion for a speedy trial Feb. 3, 2021, pursuant to Indiana Criminal Rule 4(B) which requires a trial court to either hold a jury trial within 70 days or discharge the defendant.

However, at the time Smith filed his motion, an order from the Indiana Supreme Court mandated all trial courts to wait until March 1, 2021, to start the 70-day clock. Fulton Superior Court scheduled Smith’s jury trial for May 5, 2021, but on May 6, 2021, issued its own continuance and rescheduled the trial for June 30, 2021.

Subsequently, Smith was found guilty as charged. The trial court vacated the conviction for aggravated battery and criminal recklessness to avoid a double jeopardy violation then sentenced Smith to 35 years on the attempted murder conviction.

Smith appealed, challenging the trial court sua sponte continuance on May 6.

The Court of Appeals affirmed in Tyler A. Smith v. State of Indiana, 21A-CR-2799.

In particular, the appellate panel noted COVID cases were still high in early May 2021. As the Fulton Superior Court highlighted when it issued the continuance, the county was then still in the “orange” category which, according to the Indiana Department of Health, indicated 100 to 149 new cases were being reported each week.

Moreover, the county only had one courtroom large enough to conduct a jury trial which would enable all the participants to socially distance.

“Smith’s argument that the trial court was required to make a specific finding that local pandemic conditions constituted an emergency is without merit,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote for the court. “The parameters of Indiana Criminal Rule 4(B) clearly specify that a trial court may continue a trial upon taking note of a congestion or an emergency—without the additional requirement of a local emergency.

“Here, the trial court’s finding that both an emergency and court congestion existed was reasonable in light of the circumstances relating to the COVID-19 pandemic that raged at the time the trial court continued Smith’s trial,” Riley continued. “The trial court did not err by continuing Smith’s jury trial and denying his motion for discharge.”

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