Crime & Courts

McHenry County courthouse faces criticism from attorneys who say more appearances should be done remotely, policies seem to vary by courtroom

The Michael J. Sullivan Judicial Center, formerly known as the McHenry County courthouse is seen in March.
The Michael J. Sullivan Judicial Center, formerly known as the McHenry County courthouse is seen in March.

With McHenry County’s positive COVID-19 cases on the rise, some attorneys have concerns about the inherent risk of in-person court appearances.

As of Wednesday, no outbreaks have been traced to the McHenry County courthouse, health officials said.

The Michael J. Sullivan Judicial Center reopened in June for nonessential business after several months of limited in-person services. But with limited access to remote options, few contact-tracing measures and policies that seem to vary by courtroom, attorneys such as Woodstock-based Ray Flavin say McHenry County isn’t taking the virus seriously.

“Conducting the court right now is just unbelievable,” Flavin said. “Had COVID-19 been a few percent more deadly, think about what the result would have been in this courthouse.”

McHenry County saw a daily test positivity rate of 21% as of Nov. 9, the last day data is available for, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. That number has steadily increased since Oct. 26. Although the area has maintained a 98% recovery rate, McHenry County has been home to 120 deaths from COVID-19, according to the IDPH.

“They need to convert [court proceedings] over to Zoom, cancel jury trials, and we’ll come back sometime in the spring and see where we’re at,” Flavin said.

In the midst of the pandemic, those who enter the McHenry County courthouse are subjected to the usual security measures, including metal detectors or X-ray scans of their personal items. Throughout the hallways and in the courtrooms, however, socially distanced seating is marked off with caution tape; clerks and reporters are seated behind plexiglass; and attendees, including attorneys, are required to wear face coverings.

The pandemic has been a learning curve for everyone involved in the court’s day-to-day functions and conversations about improving safety measures are always ongoing, McHenry County Court Administrator Dan Wallis said.

“There’s a constant balance here between access to justice and keeping people safe,” Wallace said.

Navigating daily operations during a global pandemic has varied by judiciary.

On Oct. 29, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois suspended all jury trials in an effort to limit in-person traffic. The higher court also suspended civil hearings and public gatherings effective Friday.

In Kane County, visitors entering the courthouse have their temperature taken and are questioned about possible COVID-19 symptoms or exposures, according to the court’s website. Kane County also monitors who and how many people are inside the building at one time, both in the courtrooms and throughout the hallways.

Although anyone with COVID-19 symptoms is encouraged to stay home, attorneys such as Geneva-based Matthew Haiduk fear they already may have been exposed to the virus at the Woodstock courthouse.

In a Nov. 10 motion to continue a client’s DUI jury trial, Haiduk wrote that he believes “members of the defense bar, prosecutors’ office and the judiciary who are frequently in the McHenry County Courthouse have recently contracted COVID-19.”

Reached by phone Wednesday, McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally declined to say whether anyone at his office had contracted the virus. If they had, Kenneally said, he would comply with all contact-tracing efforts.

As for delaying jury trials or cutting back on other in-person services at the courthouse, it’s a “question of balancing the risks,” Kenneally said. Residents called for jury duty maintain social distancing and are screened for underlying conditions, Kenneally said. Unlike other visitors to the courthouse, potential jurors also have their temperatures taken.

“My position would be that the criminal justice system and justice would be essential,” Kenneally said. “I think that an open, expeditious and fair court system is critical.”

McHenry County was seen as a leader in virtual court appearances shortly after the onset of the pandemic. Although there are no options to appear remotely in McHenry County’s felony rooms, the courthouse does offer livestreams and remote appearances for some misdemeanor, traffic, small claims, foreclosure, family and specialty matters.

Rules and procedures for remote appearances vary by judge, and court administration is working to resolve any perceived inconsistencies, Wallis said.

“We need to make sure that we are sending a very clear and consistent message,” Wallis said.

McHenry County’s COVID-19 safety measures haven’t yet caught up to those in nearby counties, Haiduk said.

As of Thursday, Haiduk was juggling cases at courthouses throughout northern Illinois, although McHenry County is the only one he consistently needs to make in-person appearances for, he said.

“Almost every other regular court appearance I do in every other county I can do over Zoom,” Haiduk said.

Even with staggered court calls, social distancing in the courtroom can cause an overflow into the hallway, he said.

“Some of those courtrooms, you’re walking out into what is basically a COVID-19 cloud, and you can’t avoid it,” Haiduk said.

In July, one of Haiduk’s clients, a 50-year-old man with underlying health conditions, was forced to enter the McHenry County courthouse despite the man’s concerns about contracting COVID-19.

The defendant, David Magnuson, asked whether he could wave to the prosecutor from the courthouse parking lot as proof of his attendance. Magnuson ultimately was required to enter the courthouse so his case could receive a new trial date.

“It’s pretty unempathetic in the middle of this that you don’t trust their excuse,” Haiduk said.

Flavin had a similar encounter when one of his clients couldn’t enter the building because she had a fever, he said.

The judge presiding over the woman’s case advised her to come back at a future date with a doctor’s note, Flavin said. When she didn’t have the note at her next court appearance and still had a fever, a warrant was issued for her arrest.

“I had to hold up my phone and FaceTime her,” Flavin said.

McHenry County isn’t opposed to introducing more safety measures such as taking visitors’ temperatures upon entry or offering broader access to remote options, Wallace said.

Implementing those measures, however, could require increased court security staffing and a more robust information technology team. Although the county’s IT department often assists with court matters, the courthouse’s designated IT team consists of only one person, Wallis said.

“It isn’t just a one and done,” Wallis said. “You need personnel. You need equipment.”

While continued access to justice and court services is important, attorneys and their clients have more on the line than usual amid the pandemic, Haiduk said.

“The holidays are coming up,” he said. “I don’t want to have to spend two weeks away from my kid at Christmas because I caught COVID-19 at this courthouse.”

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