The Potter County Courthouse has been conducting most of its business via Zoom during the coronavirus pandemic.
Potter County’s District Attorney, Andy Watson, said it’s been an interesting time with few court hearings held in person. All of the hearings have been held via Zoom. The judge sits in the courtroom, while the attorneys, including Watson, are in their own offices. The defendant participates from their home.
For the most part, doing pleas, preliminary hearings, sentences and reentry petitions via Zoom has been working well, Watson said. In the event that the defendant is unable to participate via Zoom, they have the option to call in via telephone. With any new technology implementation, there are bumps along the way. Sometimes it’s hard to hear when someone has to call in, but it’s working, Watson said.
When someone receives a jail sentence, they are to report to jail the next day. Watson said it’s made very clear that if they don’t show up and attempt to flee, they’ll be charged with escape. He said they haven’t had any issues with people not showing up.
When the pandemic first began, Watson said he and Judge Stephen Minor went through the list of people in jail and had lengthy talks about early releases. Watson said they looked at people who had a short amount of time left on their sentence, who were at a low risk of committing another crime and those who had serious medical problems.
In total, the Potter County Jail has had less than 10 early releases and the jail population is down, Watson said. In early February, the jail had 50 males and five females in McKean and Tioga counties. The week of May 10, the jail had 36 males and five females in McKean and Tioga counties.
Watson said law enforcement was directed not to pick up people on outstanding warrants unless it was a serious felony and to contact him prior to doing so.
“We worked hard to make sure we’re not overpopulating the jail unless they were a high risk of committing crime,” Watson said.
For now, trails have been canceled, and in some cases rescheduled and canceled again. Jury selections have been canceled, too. Watson hopes to begin having live hearings in the courtroom by the end of May. He said facemasks will be worn, hand sanitizer will be available and shields will be up.
But law enforcement is still visible and is out enforcing the law. Last week, May 10-15, was National Police Week and May 15 was Peace Officers Memorial Day, which pays tribute to the local, state, and federal peace officers who have died, or who have been disabled, in the line of duty. Typically the county rallies together to show their support and appreciation for law enforcement, but because of the coronavirus, several things were unable to happen. Still, Watson said he’s appreciative to work with such dedicated men and women and hopes to be able to have something to honor them when things return to normal.