Berrien County courts to enter Phase Three of reopening

BERRIEN COUNTY – The Berrien County Courts will be entering Phase Three of reopening beginning Monday.

During the Berrien County Board of Commissioners meeting on Thursday, Carrie Smietanka-Haney, Berrien County trial court administrator, gave an overview of what will be changing with the Berrien County court systems. The commissioners also passed a resolution to approve an agreement with Lake Michigan College for use of an event space to host a COVID-19 vaccine clinic, and discussed steps moving forward for urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human services to utilize a regional approach to COVID-19 restrictions.

Smietanka-Haney said with Phase Three of the reopening plans for the Berrien County courts, more in-person services will be available.

“We are going to be allowing walk-in filings at that time. We won’t be allowing general walk-in questions or comments,” Smietanka-Haney said. “We have added a few additional hearing types to be in-person, though if individuals would prefer to participate by Zoom, we are happy to do so.”

She said the courts will begin jury trials again on March 15. The courts will follow a similar format as to what was followed last fall, with large jury selections being hosted at the Niles Court House in the north portion of the building.

Misdemeanor, civil and family cases will be hosted at both Niles and St. Joseph locations of courthouses.

Some payments and other services that have been challenging to manage remotely will also be allowed in-person, while the buildings will remain closed to the general public.

“We will be working with our partners to allow some [people] by-appointment only in the buildings, at both court houses,” Smietanka-Haney said.

The Berrien County Juvenile Center will be allowing a few individuals for therapeutic and case management appointments. Video visits will be maintained until further orders from MDHHS are received.

“The current state guidelines state the return to full capacity is Phase Four, and that is not until the national pandemic is declared over,” Smietanka-Haney said.

She said the courts anticipated being at Phase Three for quite some time.

At the end of the meeting, the commissioners reviewed the latest MDHHS order that begins on Friday, which includes increased restaurant and bar capacity to 50 percent, an 11 p.m. curfew and expanded gatherings outlines.

“I was encouraged there was some motion that had been made in this most recent order. I was discouraged to see an extension from what was supposed to be [ending] March 29 with the current orders, to be extended out to April 19,” said Commissioner Teri Freehling. “[What] I would ask this board to perhaps consider, and to have a discussion on, is a process of writing another communication, a letter or resolution, that urges the state and our governor to give us clear metrics [on this decision making].”

Chairman of the Board Mac Elliot agreed and said the board would do some preliminary work to send another communication out in the weeks ahead.

“I think it is best to keep this at the forefront and to press for an explanation as to how these decisions are being made, and to ask for some rationale for not employing a regional approach,” Elliot said. “One size does not fit all. What’s going on here isn’t necessarily what’s going on in the southeast corner of the state or some other major population center.”

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