The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous effect on the country’s ability to function. Schools, stores, and government functions have all been temporarily shut down. For the most part, this includes the Massachusetts court system. In fact, thousands of people who have been arrested and are awaiting trial have had their trial dates pushed back due to the pandemic. Most recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court explained that no jury trials would be held until September, at the earliest.
Any delay in a Massachusetts criminal trial can be anxiety-inducing, as defendants often look forward to having their day in court where, hopefully, they can prove their innocence. For those defendants in state or local custody, the delay caused by COVID-19 is even more impactful, extending the amount of time they are away from friends, family, and employment opportunities. This is especially concerning because these individuals enjoy the presumption of innocence under the United States Constitution. However, despite that fact, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court previously stated that the delay attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic would not count as calculable time under the state’s speedy trial laws. Thus, while most cases must be brought within 12 months of arraignment, under the current conditions, this period has been extended.
In a recent opinion, the Massachusetts Judicial Supreme Court extended its application of the above principle, holding that COVID-19-related delays will similarly not count towards the limits on pre-trial incarceration. The case arose when judges in three separate cases heard motions from defendants for pre-trial release. In each of these motions, the defendant asked the judge to consider the delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic when calculating the number of days they had been in custody. Thus, under the court’s recent ruling, the days a defendant is held in custody pending trial from March 13, 2020, to September 8, 2020, will not count towards any actual calculation of pre-trial incarceration. The practical effect of this ruling is that many who are awaiting trial, and may otherwise have been entitled to release due to the delay, must stay in custody until they can afford to post bail or reach their trial date.