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  • Ann Sheeley

How COVID-19 Is Impacting Rhode Island’s Criminal Justice System

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

The Coronavirus and the respiratory illness it causes, COVID-19, continues to be a top concern for our entire nation. In these unprecedented times, our Federal, state and local governments are making decisions that affect the operations of our criminal justice systems. In Rhode Island, court sessions have been cancelled for everything except for emergency/essential matters through April 17, 2020, and there is strong reason to believe that Court dates may get pushed out further until the pandemic is under control.

Matters Deemed Emergency/Essential

Rhode Island courts that currently remain open (see below) are equipped to handle any and all emergency matters, including but not limited to domestic violence petitions, temporary restraining orders, bail, and arraignments for charges of serious crimes.

Credit: National Center for State Courts

Consistent with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rhode Island has implemented important measures to reduce the number of people entering its courthouses and potentially spreading the virus. As such,

1. All grand jury proceedings and ongoing criminal hearings are postponed. There is an exception for matters that impact a person’s liberty interests.

2. All criminal hearings will be conducted telephonically due to the fact that reliable video conferencing is not always available;

3. If a felony plea or sentencing in a case cannot be delayed any further without seriously compromising justice, the hearing will be conducted telephonically.

Rhode Island Courts Currently Open and Closed

On April 1, the Chief Justice of Rhode Island in response to the public health crisis closed the Murray Judicial Complex (serving Newport County) in Newport and the McGrath Judicial Complex (serving Washington County) in South Kingstown. Most recently, Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell signed an executive order closing the Noel Judicial Complex (serving Kent County) in Warwick and the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal in Cranston. The Administrative Office of State Courts stated that the closures may be temporary, but they are not certain about how long the buildings will be closed.

The number of court hearings taking place has been significantly reduced statewide, particularly in Washington County and Newport County as a safety precaution and to conserve resources and critical supplies.

Emergency and essential matters in all counties for Family Court, District Court, and the Traffic Tribunal now will now be heard at the Garrahy Judicial Complex, which is located at 1 Dorrance Square in downtown Providence.

For Superior Court cases, emergency and essential matters for all counties will now be heard at the Licht Judicial Complex, 250 Benefit St., Providence. The exception is with violation presentments, which will continue to occur at the Garrahy Judicial Complex.

Updated Arrest Policies & Correctional Facility Procedures

Many departments have expanded citation in lieu of arrest policies or limited arrests within already established statutory limits. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also issued new guidance for law enforcement personnel in response to the public health crisis.

Correctional facilities are considered high risk for the spread of COVID-19. The federal Bureau of Prisons, state corrections departments and local jail administrators have all taken steps to mitigate the spread of the disease. In addition to reducing arrests, authorities have also implemented some of the following measures:

  • Reducing jail admissions.

  • Releasing from jail certain non-violent, first-time offenders for minor crimes.

  • Reducing unnecessary contact, visits and technical violations for people on probation and parole.

  • Reducing or suspending prison visitation.

  • Reducing or eliminating the costs of phone calls and video communications.

In closing, these are unprecedented times for our legal system. Our state is taking many critical measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19, while upholding its judicial obligations. Law enforcement officers are putting themselves at great risk for contracting COVID-19 in order to keep our community safe. Sheeley Law urges you to abide by the law at all times, but especially during this time, given the heightened risks of danger.

Should you find yourself in need of legal representation for a criminal offense or civil matter, please contact Attorney Ann Sheeley to ensure your rights are being protected at all times. For a free consultation, email or call 401-619-5555.


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