A lot of the operating procedures have changed for the Natchitoches Parish District Attorney’s Office to deal with the coronavirus and the state’s reopening guidelines under Phase 1. What what does it all mean and what does it actually look like for District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington and his staff members?
The Natchitoches Parish Journal wanted to provide readers with a window into the world of the DA’s Office and how operations have adapted. The Courthouse as a whole is requiring citizens to wear masks upon entering the building. Temperatures are also being checked at the main entrance and upstairs before anyone enters the courtroom.
Bathrooms and the courtroom itself are being cleaned between uses. Even the microphones are being cleaned after each person speaks into them and pens are being cycled out. The number of people allowed inside is being restricted. A lot of daily business is being conducted via Zoom and teleconference calls.
The DA’s Office in particular is encouraging appointments so they know when to expect and prepare for visitors. Chairs are pushed back a bit further from desks than usual to meet social distancing requirements.
“It’s been difficult,” said DA Harrington, who knows how ingrained shaking hands is, especially in the south. He shared a dream he had about accidentally shaking someone’s hand. This is just an example of the world we live in now and the efforts we’re making to reconcile how we’re used to living with how we need to live now with Covid-19.
Cases have continued to come in from law enforcement so the DA’s Office has been working throughout the pandemic. Staff members are rotating shifts and have learned to work remotely from home.
“We’ve had to find different ways to do things,” said DA Harrington. “We can’t think like we used to.”
This means utilizing the Parish Government’s meeting room so people can spread out for face-to-face when necessary, or finding a secluded place outside where confidentiality can still be maintained.
The first day of in-person court was held last week after the 10th Judicial District Court began reopening. Prior to that, virtual court was held for inmates with time sensitive cases through video links to the Natchitoches Parish Detention Center.
People are taken to the courtroom one at a time, and only one person is allowed on the elevator at a time. The courtroom is sanitized in between groups. This takes a lot of planning and requires more time invested into logistics.
But all this extra effort, DA Harrington feels the Natchitoches Parish Courthouse is leading the way in reopening.
“We’re ahead of the game because we get along and cooperate with one another,” said DA Harrington. “We’re all working toward the betterment of our parish and the safety of the people coming into the courthouse.”
There’s also the matter of the over 200 citations given during the curfew the Parish put in place from April 8 to May 13. Special court dates are being issued in September. DA Harrington said a special online education component is being created so that anyone found guilty of violating the curfew will be required to take a class to educate them on the Coronavirus. This comes on the heels of warnings from experts that there may be a spike in Covid-19 cases once cities begin to reopen.
City Court has also been working with limitations, particularly since it has a smaller courtroom with an often big traffic docket. DA Harrington said they’re entertaining the idea of holding a drive thru traffic ticket payment event so people can pay their fines right from their cars.
In other court business, the way we think of the jury, sitting to the side of the judge’s bench in their small box, will change. Normally, around 300 people are subpoenaed for jury duty. This whole process will have to be redesigned and jury members will have to be more spread out for trials.
“We’re working on new ways to do things and I’m revamping the way I do my dockets to stagger the cases throughout the day,” said DA Harrington, who is overall optimistic. He’s been impressed with the amount of people entering the courthouse with their own masks to wear.
“We’re going to have some good things come out of this as long as we all continue to work together,” he said. This includes everyone who works in the courtroom and the public itself who has been very understanding as things continue to change.