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Partial coronavirus shutdown starts to lift at federal court in Tucson
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Partial coronavirus shutdown starts to lift at federal court in Tucson

From the June's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Bars, gyms face shutdowns; Tucsonans worried telemedicine might disappear series

Operation Streamline, the fast-track prosecution program that handles about 1,400 border-crossing cases each month, remains suspended.

The partial shutdown at Tucson’s federal court began to lift in recent weeks, but key functions remain canceled.

The pandemic led Chief U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow to shut down jury trials in March, as well as the grand jury that hands up indictments and a fast-track prosecution program for illegal-border-crossing cases in Tucson.

The pandemic remains a national public health emergency, Snow wrote in a May 28 order, but “the current guidance of public health officials allows for a modification in court operations to permit the resumption of limited in-court proceedings.”

Snow ordered the partial lifting of the moratorium on hearings and jury trials starting June 1, although they must be conducted according to federal health guidelines.

Anyone who attends hearings or trials must wear a mask and observe social-distancing rules, Snow wrote.

A maximum of 10 people can sit in the public areas of the courtroom and they must sit in areas marked with an “X.”

No one with symptoms such as a fever or cough is allowed to enter the courthouse.

All court activities not related to cases remain canceled, including naturalization ceremonies and educational events, Snow ordered.

Customer service counters at the clerk’s office will remain closed to the public until June 12, Snow ordered.

In late March and early April, court filings plummeted as drug smuggling and illegal border crossings slowed. Federal agencies also delayed some prosecutions and Customs and Border Protection started quickly expelling migrants at the border instead of sending them to court.

Operation Streamline, the fast-track prosecution program that handles about 1,400 cases each month, remains suspended until further notice, Snow wrote. The last day Streamline proceedings were held was March 13.

The court has adopted a number of practices since March to keep the court functioning as much as possible.

Court personnel will continue to hold routine hearings via telephone or videoconferencing with defendants who are in custody at facilities run by CoreCivic, Snow wrote, referencing a private prison company that holds many defendants who appear in federal court in Tucson.

Grand jury proceedings in Tucson will not resume until June 17 and could be postponed again “depending on public health developments,” Snow wrote.

With border-crossing cases, prosecutors have started working around the lack of grand jury indictments by filing a document known as an information when the defendant faces a short prison sentence, court records show.

Many of those cases are resolved with a plea deal and a sentence of time served, which was not uncommon prior to the pandemic, court records show.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on how prosecutors are handling border-crossing cases.

Drug-smuggling prosecutions are much less frequent than before the pandemic, court records show. Some of those prosecutions are being deferred to a later date, particularly when the defendant is a U.S. citizen with ties to Arizona. CBP officials periodically announce drug busts on social media.

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or cprendergast@tucson.com or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar

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