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‘Now Was The Appropriate Time’: St. Louis County’s Presiding Judge On Restarting Evictions, Jury Trials

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St. Louis County Courts
With jury trials expected to resume in St. Louis County by mid-April, spaces at the courthouse in Clayton have been reconfigured with COVID-19-related precautions in place. St. Louis County Courts also recently opened a satellite court at 715 Northwest Plaza Drive in St. Ann.

Last week, the St. Louis County Courts began again allowing eviction proceedings under limited circumstances. On April 5, a much broader array of evictions will resume — with about 600 cases already in the final phases and ready for service.

“There were a lot of factors that had to be considered, and we’ve spent a lot of time doing a pretty thorough analysis of many of these concerns,” St. Louis County Presiding Judge Michael D. Burton told St. Louis on the Air on Thursday.

Last week’s planned residential evictions in the county were limited to just two cases — properties where drug-related criminal activity was an issue. (The county also began to execute evictions last week on commercial properties.) But beginning next week, the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office plans to begin working through the hundreds of others.

Burton said the decision to move forward with certain evictions followed considerations including the needs of the community, the difficulties that both tenants and landlords have faced over the past year, and the health and safety of the sheriff’s office staff.

“We wanted to make sure that everyone had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before they were put in a position to be going inside any of these residences. … Taking into account their safety, [and] taking into account the fact that landlords and tenants would be able to benefit from the significant programs that were coming their way as far as funding, we thought now was the appropriate time to make some changes,” the judge explained.

Since St. Louis County announced it would resume processing evictions last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended its eviction moratorium through June of this year. But the moratorium only applies in cases where tenants proactively fill out a form attesting that certain conditions apply, including pandemic-related income loss or hardship.

“A lot of times when we hear the word ‘moratorium,’ specifically as it relates to the federal moratorium, that does not mean that tenants cannot be removed,” Burton said. “They can be evicted. However, they do have some opportunities to take some measures to combat that, and that’s what the federal moratorium provides.”

He added, “If someone fills out the declaration based on the certain qualifications, that is really what the federal government is concerned about, and those folks would be protected.”

In addition to the roughly 600 pending evictions in the county — cases where a judgment has already been issued but the sheriff’s office has been holding off on the execution during the pandemic — Burton anticipates more landlords filing cases going forward.

“We do expect that many steps will be taken to pursue evictions,” he said.

Still, Burton is hopeful the county can avoid large numbers of people being removed from their housing. The CDC has cited families taking shelter with each other as creating conditions ripe for the spread of COVID-19.

“We’ve got a housing committee that’s made up of landlord attorneys, tenants’ attorneys, representatives from the county — we’ve been communicating a lot,” the judge said. “And one of the main issues that is discussed a lot at this point relates to the stimulus relief that is coming [beginning in April].”

That includes the Emergency Rental Assistance Program and the State Assistance for Housing Relief Program.

“At this time many landlords can get rent that has accrued over the past year as part of that relief, and if in fact they do seek that kind of relief, they cannot evict folks from their residence,” Burton said. “And we believe that that itself is going to assist and really cut down on the numbers of evictions.”

During the talk show, the St. Louis Housing Defense Collective inquired on Twitter about bulk filings in the county.

“There are significant numbers that are coming our way, but the bottom line is we still recognize the fact that there’s a process,” the judge said in response. “We’re sensitive to the fact that there are landlords that certainly have the right to remove folks from their residences. But we also have faith in the process and we have faith in the fact that there right now is significant stimulus money [available to] both the landlords and the tenants to ensure that they remain.”

If people facing eviction apply for relief, Burton said that should halt their court case while the process plays out.

Burton and his St. Louis County Courts colleagues are also encouraging those seeking COVID-19-related housing and utility assistance to choose from two options: apply at stlouisco.onlinepha.com (314-806-0910 for the helpline), or apply at mohousingresources.com/safhr (833-541-1599 for the helpline).

Free help reaching a landlord-tenant agreement is also available via the St. Louis Mediation Project. And for legal aid, the county is pointing people to ArchCity Defenders, the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and St. Francis Community Services.

Burton also explained that the court is gearing up for a return to jury trials, which he is hopeful will resume April 12. But he emphasized just how much court business has continued to take place during the COVID-19 crisis.

“One of the things that I think a lot of people believe is that our court was closed,” he said. “And we’ve never really closed — the difference is we’ve just had very few in-person proceedings. And when we focus on one of the huge concerns that all the judges in this building have, access to justice, we were able to really see some incredible things happen through virtual hearings.”

Using tools including Zoom and Webex, family, probate, civil and even many criminal court proceedings continued to happen over the past year. The court also created e-court kiosks at its Clayton headquarters and most recently launched a satellite court located in north St. Louis County.

Still, Burton expressed eagerness to get back to jury trials, complicated as the coordinating will be early on.

“We know that it is a real frustration for victims and defendants who have been sitting in the jail for a long period of time,” he said. “But we’re ready to start. The attorneys have been phenomenal, they have been patient with us — we think we’re ready to get started two weeks from now.”

Only two jury trials at a time will be feasible in this next phase due to the need for space that will allow participants and observers to stay distanced.

“Just even the coordination of having a jury trial would mean we can’t use standard jury rooms because they’re too small,” Burton explained. “So we’re going to have an adjacent courtroom for purposes of recesses and deliberation. We also can’t let anyone come into the courtroom beyond all the players that are typically there for criminal matters. So we're going to have a feed that will allow for folks to come in to watch the trial that way.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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