The Impact of Coronavirus on Iowa’s Criminal Justice System

Iowa Courthouse

The impact of the current Coronavirus pandemic on Iowa’s criminal justice system is real and severe.

Pursuant to the April 2, 2020 order issued by the Iowa Judicial Branch, ALL state jury trials are currently suspended.  Suspended.  As in not happening until no sooner than July 13.

This may not be a big deal to some but to those currently incarcerated awaiting trial, it is a significant interference with their constitutional and statutory rights.  We won’t wade into the debate of court powers, emergency proclamations in this post, but it is important to understand that thousands of Iowans are currently incarcerated with no chance or release until July 13th, at the earliest.  Just as important, the Iowa Supreme Court has modified the rules associated with speedy trial and speedy indictment so that trials will not be required to occur as soon as they otherwise would once courts return to normal functioning.

Ordinarily, for criminal charges in Iowa state courts, a Trial Information, the formal charging document establishing the existence of probable cause, must be filed and approved by a judge within 45 days of the defendant’s arrest.  Additionally, that individual must be brought to trial within 90 days of their arraignment unless they waive that right to speedy trial.  The speedy indictment rule which requires the filing and approving of the formal charging document within 45 days of arrest is now extended to 60 days for all cases where the defendant had his/her initial appearance before June 1st.

The speedy trial deadlines have been even more drastically altered.  Speedy trial guarantees are now suspended until at the earliest, July 13, 2020.  The Iowa Supreme Court could extend those dates even further.  Defendants currently incarcerated will suffer the greatest delays.  The Iowa Supreme Court’s order states that in those cases where the formal charges were filed and approved prior to July 13, 2020, the normal 90-day speedy trial deadline is extended to 120 days.  More importantly, that deadline starts ANEW beginning on July 13, 2020.  In other words day 1 of the 120 day speedy trial deadline does not begin until July 13th.  This means that none of the time that a defendant is currently incarcerated is counting against the speedy trial deadline.  It is dead time.  The one year speedy trial rule is also extended and does not even begin counting until April 20th!  For someone who was coming up on their 1 year speedy trial deadline, this order means that their 1 year speedy trial deadline starts completely over on April 20th of this year.  1-year speedy trial now becomes 2 years.  This will most certainly be an issue resulting in extensive litigation in the near future for all those adversely impacted by the Iowa Supreme Court’s order.

Federal Courts are in a similar position.  In an order entered today, the Iowa District Court for the Southern District of Iowa continued ALL jury trials currently scheduled to occur prior to July 6, 2020, until further order of the court.  An assessment will take place in June to determine what, if any rescheduling decisions can be made at that time.  Like Iowa’s state courts, the federal courts have declared that the time defendants are sitting in custody is NOT counted against the Speedy Trial Act.  Most defendants facing federal criminal accusations are detained in custody pending trial.

The order entered by the Iowa Supreme Court in response to the Coronavirus pandemic impacts all other legal proceedings that are pending as well.  For example, all civil jury trials scheduled prior to August 3, 2020 are now continued.  In-person court appearances are severely curtailed.  The full order can be accessed from the link above.  Bottom line, the ordinary criminal justice timeline has been drastically altered.  While precautions limiting public exposure are certainly necessary, their impact has significant implications for individuals currently incarcerated.   Most assuredly, the impact on the Iowa state and federal criminal justice systems arising out of the Coronavirus pandemic will continue to be felt long after courts have resumed their normal functioning.