UPDATE: District Attorney Warren Montgomery is asking that all arrest warrants issued for people who failed to appear in court on Louisiana’s “snow day” be deferred.
Original Story Below:
COVINGTON- Schools were closed, parish governments were mostly shutdown and law enforcement was encouraging as little travel as possible, all in the name of safety.
As rare snow fell across the Northshore Friday, some court business inside the 22nd Judicial District Courthouse in Covington carried on.
An order signed by Chief Judge Richard Swartz late Thursday, December 7th, reads in part, "considering the emergency created by winter weather, and further, in consideration of the hazardous and unsafe condition caused therefrom; it is hereby ordered that the 22nd Judicial District Court... will be closed on Friday, December 8, 2017 except any matter scheduled to be heard on December 8, 2017, in any court division, including but not limited to Criminal Trials, Criminal Motions, Misdemeanor Trials, Protective Order Hearings and 72-Hour Hearings will be considered as scheduled as is required for the efficient administration of the 22nd Judicial District Court's calendar."
That turned out to be Division C, where a murder trial was underway, Division I, where criminal motions hearings were scheduled, and Misdemeanor Court, where dozens of people were scheduled for a variety of cases including traffic offenses.
Anyone who didn't show up would have a warrant issued for their arrest.
"The last thing I did Thursday afternoon before I left was tell my clients court was canceled," said Covington defense attorney Mike Bradley. "I found out late that evening. I was able to get a message to a friend of mine who was able to continue them so there were no warrants issued for my clients."
Local defense attorneys, including Bradley, say they've never seen selective closures like that in the past, nor conflicting and confusing closure plans.
Swartz, the court's chief judge, says despite the parish advising to close the courthouse along with the rest of parish government closing, the decision to keep certain courts open came from individual judges in collaboration with staff from the District Attorney's office and the Clerk of Court's office. The Clerk's office was closed Friday, while the District Attorney's Office stayed open for part of the day. The 22nd Judicial District Court also covers Washington Parish. There, the entire courthouse was closed Friday.
Court Administrator Rachel Edelman said subpoenas to appear for trial are outstanding and, if court would have been canceled, it would require all defendants to be re-served. She said that leaves open the potential to "lose people in the process."
Edelman admits the only places the court published the information about certain court business continuing was on the state Supreme Court's website and their own website. The Clerk of Court's office also published it on their website and Facebook page.
While the total of cases on Friday's docket and total number of warrants issued were unavailable by news time, the Clerk of Court's office says there were 60 people expected to show on the misdemeanor and domestic violence dockets and 13 were issued warrants for not showing.
And while the legal community admits it is the responsibility of the defendant and attorneys to know the status of their cases, the parish's top public defender, John Lindner, said "bench warrants should not have been issued" in this case and he's hoping defendants will not have trouble reaching out to the District Attorney's office to get them re-called because of the situation.
A spokeswoman with District Attorney Warren Montgomery's office, which requested the warrants as part of "standard operating procedures if court is open," says none of the warrants issued have been processed and forwarded to the St. Tammany Sheriff's Office. The Clerk of Court's office confirmed that statement, but no one had any knowledge of what would come of the pending warrants.
Regardless, it's a lesson Bradley says he's learned from and he hopes the court system learns from as well.
"My biggest concern is that no one actually goes to jail for missing court on what was a snow day," said Bradley.
Across the state, ten of the 40 judicial district courts had Friday closures posted on the state Supreme Court's website. Of those ten, three had partial closures, or half-days, but no others had selective court closures like the 22nd JDC.