What’s it like when courts close for more than two weeks because of a hurricane? Justice returned to the Florida Keys on Wednesday as Monroe County, Fl., held its first bona fide criminal-court hearing since Hurricane Irma forced the evacuation of more than 400 jail inmates and scattered judges, lawyers and support staff away from the island chain, the Miami Herald reports. The cases were called and closed rapid fire, all of them agreements between prosecutors and defense lawyers to clear the jail of about 20 petty criminals arrested in the weeks before Hurricane Irma arrived on Sept. 10. An island chain stretching 113 miles, the Florida Keys are a unique place to practice criminal law, requiring lots of driving and a tolerance for high rent despite the small-town vibe.
There are major crimes, including murder, but most cases are small time: the homeless arrested for trespassing, the addict arrested for drugs, the Miami weekend tourist arrested after too much booze at a tiki bar. Many suspects were housed at the Monroe Detention Center on Stock Island right outside Key West. The building is constructed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, but authorities were worried that the aftermath — with no electricity, fuel or provisions — would pose too much of a challenge to keep inmates and the public safe. So deputies evacuated 466 inmates to Palm Beach and court proceedings were suspended. With debris-filled roads, downed cell towers and little functioning electricity, resuming court was a logistical nightmare. Even so, several public defenders, along with social workers from Palm Beach, interviewed 200 inmates who had been evacuated. With no computer records to rely on — the clerks’s website went down during the storm — they relied on paper logs to track every inmate who might have been eligible for release in the coming days.