Berrien County Trial Court expanding public access

ST. JOSEPH, Mich. -- The pandemic hasn’t stopped court from being in session, but it’s certainly forced things to be done a lot differently.

The Berrien County Courthouse is now in Phase 3 of the Michigan Supreme Court’s reopening plan, resuming some types of hearings in-person and jury trials will be happening face-to-face.

The Trial Court only spent three weeks in Phase 3 last fall before they had to shut things down as a COVID-19 surge swept across Michiana.

Now that its back in Phase 3, limited access will be allowed for the public to file paperwork or come in for an appointment with non-court departments.

The biggest change is getting jury trials back in-person, as the county was only able to do that eight times in 2020.

“The Supreme Court has outlined that we need to continue to do Zoom as much as we feasibly can, so while we are allowing certain things in-person, we’ll also always provide you the option of participating through Zoom,” said Carrie Smietanka-Haney, Berrien County Trial Court Administrator.

In addition to contact tracing for anyone who comes in the building, jurors will be held to a high safety standard.

“Requiring masks, folks can also have face shields if they feel more comfortable, everyone will be screened prior to coming in the building and if anyone exhibits any COVID-19 symptoms that will be indicated to the judge and they won’t be allowed in the building,” said Smietanka-Haney.

In the very plausible case a juror gets sick, the court will have multiple on standby.

“We always have at least one or two extra jurors on the pool and those jurors could fill in, they can also be asked to be on-call,” said Smietanka-Haney.

While the court said they understand it may be frustrating for people who are turned away without an appointment, the county could very well be in Phase 3 for a long time.

“There are four phases with the fourth phase being full reopening to the public, the specifications there however are that the pandemic be declared over, therefore we could very well be in Phase 3 for a short time or a very significant period of time,” said Smietanka-Haney.

To further their efforts at keeping the number of people inside the courthouse down, officials will also now be texting the public when their case is being called and only at that time should they come in.

The Self-Help Legal Resource Center is also back open for appointments.

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