As the federal courts have gradually resumed operations with new pandemic-era health and safety rules in place, one aspect of the courts’ mission is on a fast track: the resumption of grand jury proceedings.
As of October, all but a few of the 94 U.S. district courts had returned to the use of grand juries – the groups of citizens who meet behind closed doors to judge the strength of a prosecutor’s evidence.
The courts are taking great precautions to protect the health and safety of grand jurors and prospective jurors during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, they must be mindful of citizens’ constitutional right to a speedy trial and cognizant of the statute of limitations for filing charges against an individual, typically about five years from the time of the offense.
The New Mexico District Court along the southern border has a particularly heavy criminal caseload, driven by immigration, smuggling, and drug trafficking offenses. There are three detention facilities serving its Albuquerque courthouse and five feeding into its Las Cruces courthouse. In addition to concerns over case backlog, any slowdown in grand jury operations risked keeping defendants in unsafe conditions while in custody.
The court suspended grand jury proceedings on March 16. Before resuming them on May 6, the court put into place a number of new polices, requiring everyone entering the courthouse to wear masks, using large jury assembly rooms to allow for safe social distancing, installing hand-sanitizing stations, and bringing in lunches for grand jurors from local restaurants.
New Mexico District Chief Judge William P. Johnson said the actions taken to protect the grand jurors provided valuable experience when the court later resumed jury trials, which require a greater number of prospective jurors to be in the courthouse at one time.
“A very high percentage of grand jurors reported for duty,” Johnson said. “We were very pleasantly surprised by that. No one complained about feeling unsafe and everyone seemed to be comfortable with the precautions we took.”
The court resumed jury trials in September, using many of the same protocols it adopted for its grand jurors.
On the East Coast, courts have faced different obstacles to resuming or sustaining the use of grand juries during the pandemic.
In the Southern District of New York, which includes Manhattan, White Plains, and other suburbs, the U.S. Attorney’s Office elected not to present new cases to the court’s sitting grand juries for the first two months of the pandemic, during the height of the coronavirus outbreak in the city. Then in June, the office requested that the sitting grand jury in White Plains begin hearing cases again.
The court imposed several new safety protocols, including holding grand jury sessions in a much larger room than it typically uses, which allowed for social distancing. It also sought advice from an epidemiologist about how to mitigate airborne coronavirus particles. Plexiglas barriers were installed in the spaces for attorneys and witnesses, allowing them to talk without masks while protecting other participants.
Still, judges and other court personnel wondered what the response would be. Would the grand jurors be willing to come back into the courthouse?
“At that point, the U.S. attorney was ready to resume activity and they told the grand jurors that it was time to come to work. The response was overwhelmingly positive,” said New York Southern District Chief Judge Colleen McMahon.
“That’s the moment when we realized there was something worse than jury service – being stuck at home for weeks at a time,” McMahon said, with a laugh.
Getting citizens to serve has been somewhat easier at the White Plains courthouse than in Manhattan, where people are heavily reliant on the subway, bus lines, and other forms of mass transit. However, the judge said the court has been able to find a sufficient number of grand jurors in both locations.
A grand jury decides whether the legal standard of probable cause has been met to indict someone for a crime. Delaying grand juries and indictments can greatly extend the time it takes to complete an investigation while evidence grows stale. There also are time limits for bringing an indictment after someone has been arrested for a crime – the law protects people from being arrested and detained for long periods without charges being filed.
“You can quickly run into constitutional problems,” McMahon said. “When you arrest someone, eventually you are going to have to convene a grand jury. People are getting arrested all the time, viruses or not. Our criminal justice system does not stop, and the grand jury is by constitutional fiat an integral part of that process.”
In the Cleveland area over the summer months, the U.S. Attorney’s Office was grappling with a growing number of major cases during the pandemic, including those involving violent offenders, national security offenses, and domestic terrorism. At the office’s request, the Northern District of Ohio went forward with a limited number of grand jury sessions after putting multiple protections for the jurors in place, including converting a large ceremonial courtroom in Cleveland into a grand jury room.
“There were cases that simply had to be addressed,” said Chief Judge Patricia A. Gaughan. “That is where the trust factor comes in. We have a good working relationship with the United States Attorney’s office, and we did allow those cases to go forward.”
The court learned to improvise. When the grand jury was scheduled to meet, alternate jurors were contacted and asked to be ready to step in if needed. That allowed the judge to excuse jurors who had to quarantine, who were in high-risk categories, or who had encountered child-care issues with the closing of schools.
“We were able to excuse everyone who needed to be excused and we still obtained a quorum,” Gaughan said.
Read the Series
This is the fourth in a series of articles about how federal courts are working to recover from the COVID-19 crisis.
Next in this series: Technology, innovation play key role in advancing cases.
Like many courts around the country, Northern Ohio faces a backlog because of the number of cases that had to be postponed. Judges “have been working nonstop” to stay on top of all non-trial proceedings that can move forward with videoconferencing, such as changes of plea hearings and sentencing hearings, Gaughan said.
“We are up to speed with those proceedings,” she said. “The backlog is almost exclusively with trials.”
The Southern New York District is also working through a backlog and continues to hold only two trials at a time in order to ensure proper social distancing and lower the risk for participants.
“Our philosophy is, we can try and fail, but we can’t not try,” Chief Judge McMahon said. “Then we at least have an argument to make when someone raises constitutional and speedy trial issues.”
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- Federal Courts Participate in Audio Livestream PilotBy Sam NewsIn U.S CourtsDecember 15, 2020Thirteen district courts around the country will livestream audio of select proceedings in civil cases of public interest next year as part of a two-year pilot program.[Read More…]
- Justice Department Sues to Block Visa’s Proposed Acquisition of PlaidBy Sam NewsNovember 5, 2020Today, the Department of Justice filed a civil antitrust lawsuit to stop Visa Inc.’s $5.3 billion acquisition of Plaid Inc. Visa is a monopolist in online debit services, charging consumers and merchants billions of dollars in fees each year to process online payments. Plaid, a successful fintech firm, is developing a payments platform that would challenge Visa’s monopoly.[Read More…]
- Suspending and Terminating the Asylum Cooperative Agreements with the Governments El Salvador, Guatemala, and HondurasBy Sam NewsFebruary 6, 2021Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
- Texas Clinic Owner and Clinic Employee Sentenced to Prison for Conspiring to Unlawfully Prescribe Hundreds of Thousands of OpioidsBy Sam NewsDecember 10, 2020A Houston-area pain clinic owner and a clinic employee who posed as a physician were sentenced to 240 months and 96 months in prison, respectively, today for their roles at a “pill mill” where they and their co-conspirator illegally prescribed hundreds of thousands of doses of opioids and other controlled substances.[Read More…]
- Estonia Travel AdvisoryBy Sam NewsSeptember 26, 2020
- Higher Education: IRS and Education Could Better Address Risks Associated with Some For-Profit College ConversionsBy Sam NewsJanuary 27, 2021GAO identified 59 for-profit college conversions that occurred from January 2011 through August 2020, almost all of which involved the college's sale to a tax-exempt organization. In about one-third of the conversions, GAO found that former owners or other officials were insiders to the conversion—for example, by creating the tax-exempt organization that purchased the college or retaining the presidency of the college after its sale (see figure). While leadership continuity can benefit a college, insider involvement in a conversion poses a risk that insiders may improperly benefit—for example, by influencing the tax-exempt purchaser to pay more for the college than it is worth. Once a conversion has ended a college's for-profit ownership and transferred ownership to an organization the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recognizes as tax-exempt, the college must seek Department of Education (Education) approval to participate in federal student aid programs as a nonprofit college. Since January 2011, Education has approved 35 colleges as nonprofit colleges and denied two; nine are under review and 13 closed prior to Education reaching a decision. Figure: Example of a For-Profit College Conversion with Officials in Insider Roles IRS guidance directs staff to closely scrutinize whether significant transactions with insiders reported by an applicant for tax-exempt status will exceed fair-market value and improperly benefit insiders. If an application contains insufficient information to make that assessment, guidance says that staff may need to request additional information. In two of 11 planned or final conversions involving insiders that were disclosed in an application, GAO found that IRS approved the application without certain information, such as the college's planned purchase price or an appraisal report estimating the college's value. Without such information, IRS staff could not assess whether the price was inflated to improperly benefit insiders, which would be grounds to deny the application. If IRS staff do not consistently apply guidance, they may miss indications of improper benefit. Education has strengthened its reviews of for-profit college applications for nonprofit status, but it does not monitor newly converted colleges to assess ongoing risk of improper benefit. In two of three cases GAO reviewed in depth, college financial statements disclosed transactions with insiders that could indicate the risk of improper benefit. Education officials agreed that they could assess this risk through its audited financial statement review process and could develop procedures to do so. Until Education develops and implements such procedures for new conversions, potential improper benefit may go undetected. A for-profit college may convert to nonprofit status for a variety of reasons, such as wanting to align its status and mission. However, in some cases, former owners or other insiders could improperly benefit from the conversion, which is impermissible under the Internal Revenue Code and Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended. GAO was asked to examine for-profit college conversions. This report reviews what is known about insider involvement in conversions and to what extent IRS and Education identify and respond to the risk of improper benefit. GAO identified converted for-profit colleges and reviewed their public IRS filings. GAO also examined IRS and Education processes for overseeing conversions, interviewed agency officials, and reviewed federal laws, regulations and agency guidance. GAO selected five case study colleges based on certain risk factors, obtained information from college officials, and reviewed their audited financial statements. In three cases, GAO also reviewed Education case files. Because of the focus on IRS and Education oversight, GAO did not audit any college in this review to determine whether its conversion improperly benefitted insiders. GAO is making three recommendations, including that IRS assess and improve conversion application reviews and that Education develop and implement procedures to monitor newly converted colleges. IRS said it will assess its review process and will evaluate GAO's other recommendation, as discussed in the report. Education agreed with GAO's recommendation. For more information, contact Melissa Emrey-Arras at (617) 788-0534 or firstname.lastname@example.org.[Read More…]
- Homelessness: Better HUD Oversight of Data Collection Could Improve Estimates of Homeless PopulationBy Sam NewsAugust 13, 2020Data collected through the Point-in-Time (PIT) count—a count of people experiencing homelessness on a single night—have limitations for measuring homelessness. The PIT count is conducted each January by Continuums of Care (CoC)—local homelessness planning bodies that apply for grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and coordinate homelessness services. The 2019 PIT count estimated that nearly 568,000 people (0.2 percent of the U.S. population) were homeless, a decline from the 2012 count of about 621,500 but a slight increase over the period's low of about 550,000 in 2016. While HUD has taken steps to improve data quality, the data likely underestimate the size of the homeless population because identifying people experiencing homelessness is inherently difficult. Some CoCs' total and unsheltered PIT counts have large year-over-year fluctuations, which raise questions about data accuracy. GAO found that HUD does not closely examine CoCs' methodologies for collecting data to ensure they meet HUD's standards. HUD's instructions to CoCs on probability sampling techniques to estimate homelessness were incomplete. Some CoC representatives also said that the assistance HUD provides on data collection does not always meet their needs. By strengthening its oversight and guidance in these areas, HUD could further improve the quality of homelessness data. To understand factors associated with homelessness in recent years, GAO used PIT count data to conduct an econometric analysis, which found that rental prices were associated with homelessness. To mitigate data limitations, GAO used data from years with improved data quality and took other analytical steps to increase confidence in the results. CoC representatives GAO interviewed also identified rental prices and other factors such as job loss as contributing to homelessness. Estimated Homelessness Rates and Household Median Rent in the 20 Largest Continuums of Care (CoC), 2018 Note: This map shows the 20 largest Point-in-Time counts by CoC in 2018. GAO estimated 2018 homelessness rates because the U.S. Census Bureau data used to calculate these rates were available up to 2018 at the time of analysis. GAO used 2017 median rents (in 2018 dollars) across all unit sizes and types. Policymakers have raised concerns about the extent to which recent increases in homelessness are associated with the availability of affordable housing. Moreover, counting the homeless population is a longstanding challenge. GAO was asked to review the current state of homelessness in the United States. This report examines (1) efforts to measure homelessness and HUD's oversight of these efforts and (2) factors associated with recent changes in homelessness. GAO analyzed three HUD data sources on homelessness and developed an econometric model of the factors influencing changes in homelessness. GAO also conducted structured interviews with 12 researchers and representatives of 21 CoCs and four focus groups with a total of 34 CoC representatives responsible for collecting and maintaining homelessness data. CoCs were selected for interviews and focus groups to achieve diversity in size and geography. GAO also visited three major cities that experienced recent increases in homelessness. GAO recommends that HUD (1) conduct quality checks on CoCs' data-collection methodologies, (2) improve its instructions for using probability sampling techniques to estimate homelessness, and (3) assess and enhance the assistance it provides to CoCs on data collection. HUD concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Alicia Puente Cackley at (202) 512-8678 or email@example.com.[Read More…]
- Florida Resident Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy to Falsify Clinical Trial DataBy Sam NewsNovember 2, 2020A Florida resident pleaded guilty to conspiring to falsify clinical trial data regarding an asthma medication, the Department of Justice announced today.[Read More…]
- Secretary Blinken’s Call with Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hill TinocoBy Sam NewsFebruary 19, 2021
- Secretary Blinken’s Call with French Foreign Minister Le Drian, German Foreign Minister Maas, and UK Foreign Secretary RaabBy Sam NewsFebruary 5, 2021
- Madagascar Travel AdvisoryBy Sam NewsSeptember 26, 2020Reconsider travel [Read More…]
- Military Housing: DOD Has Taken Key Steps to Strengthen Oversight, but More Action Is Needed in Some AreasBy Sam NewsFebruary 16, 2021In 1996 Congress provided DOD with authorities enabling it to obtain private-sector financing and management to repair, renovate, construct, and operate military housing. DOD has since privatized about 99 percent of its domestic housing. The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress in addressing weaknesses in its privatized housing program, and GAO has identified additional opportunities to strengthen the program. GAO reported in March 2020 on DOD's oversight and its role in the management of privatized housing. Specifically, GAO found that 1) the military departments conducted some oversight of the physical condition of privatized housing, but some efforts were limited in scope; 2) the military departments used performance metrics to monitor private developers, but the metrics did not provide meaningful information on the condition of housing; 3) the military departments and private developers collected maintenance data on homes, but these data were not captured reliably or consistently, and 4) DOD provided reports to Congress on the status of privatized housing, but some data in these reports were unreliable, leading to misleading results. GAO made 12 recommendations, including that DOD take steps to improve housing condition oversight, performance indicators, maintenance data, and resident satisfaction reporting. DOD generally concurred with the recommendations. As of February 2021, DOD fully implemented 5 recommendations and partially implemented 7 recommendations. DOD should also take action to improve the process for setting basic allowance for housing (BAH)—a key source of revenue for privatized housing projects. In January 2021, GAO reported on DOD's process to determine BAH. GAO found that DOD has not always collected rental data on the minimum number of rental units needed to estimate the total housing cost for certain locations and housing types. Until DOD develops ways to increase its sample size, it will risk providing housing cost compensation that does not accurately represent the cost of suitable housing for servicemembers. GAO recommended that DOD review its methodology to increase sample sizes. GAO has also determined, in a report to be issued this week, that DOD should improve oversight of privatized housing property insurance and natural disaster recovery. GAO assessed the extent to which the military departments and the Office of the Secretary of Defense exercise oversight of their projects' insurance coverage. GAO found that the military departments have exercised insufficient oversight, and that the Office of the Secretary of Defense has not regularly monitored the military departments' implementation of insurance requirements. Without establishing procedures for timely and documented reviews, the military departments cannot be assured that the projects are complying with insurance requirements and assuming a proper balance of risk and cost. The draft of this report, which GAO provided to DOD for official comment, included 9 recommendations, 2 of which DOD addressed in January 2021 by issuing policy updates. The final report's 7 remaining recommendations, including that the military departments update their respective insurance review oversight procedures, will help strengthen DOD's oversight of privatized housing, once implemented. DOD concurred with all of the recommendations. Congress enacted the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI) in 1996 to improve the quality of housing for servicemembers. DOD is responsible for general oversight of privatized housing projects. Private-sector developers are responsible for the ownership, construction, renovation, maintenance, and repair of about 99 percent of military housing in the United States. GAO has conducted a series of reviews of MHPI, following reports of hazards (such as mold) in homes, questions about DOD's process to determine the basic allowance for housing rates, which is a key revenue source for privatized housing, and concerns about how DOD ensures appropriate property insurance for privatized housing projects impacted by severe weather. This statement summarizes 1) steps DOD has taken to strengthen oversight and management of its privatized housing program, and work remaining; 2) actions needed to improve DOD's BAH process; and 3) actions needed to enhance DOD's oversight of privatized housing property insurance. The statement summarizes two of GAO's prior reports, and a report to be issued, related to privatized housing. For this statement, GAO reviewed prior reports, collected information on recommendation implementation, and interviewed DOD officials. In prior reports, GAO recommended that DOD improve oversight of housing conditions; review its process for determining basic allowance for housing rates; and that the military departments update their housing insurance review oversight procedures. For more information, contact Elizabeth A. Field at (202) 512-2775 or firstname.lastname@example.org.[Read More…]
- Sao Tome and Principe Travel AdvisoryBy Sam NewsSeptember 26, 2020Reconsider travel to Sao [Read More…]
- Further Sanctions on Entities Trading in or Transporting Iranian PetrochemicalsBy Sam NewsMarch 18, 2020