Georgia Criminal Law Review

Document Type



The COVID Pandemic presented unparalleled challenges to court operations and the administration of pretrial criminal proceedings. The combination of health concerns and constitutional considerations collided in a way requiring unprecedented creativity in court operations. While scholars have given guidance on how the state courts were functioning during the pandemic, researchers have not conducted an empirical analysis on how federal courts conducted pretrial detention hearings during COVID-19.

This analysis reports the results of both qualitative and empirical findings pretrial detention hearings in federal courts during COVID-19. I examined the state of operations of the district court in several the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eleventh circuits. First, I find that there was no one size fits all for how federal courts conducted pre-trial detention proceedings. In some districts, magistrate judges remained on the front lines conducting the proceedings, while in other districts the proceedings were conducted remotely only and still in other districts, proceedings were hybrid. Second, I find that magistrate judges were not only sensitive to the right to counsel but very creative in making sure that defendants’ right to counsel was protected. Third, I find that preventing the recording of video detention hearings by the public was challenging, that family participation in many districts was enhanced due to the use of cell phones which minimized the loss of work, and there was no negative impact on the judges release decision. Fourth, I find that most federal magistrate judges prefer in person detention hearings but desire the flexibility to allow virtual participation in limited circumstances. These results suggest that federal magistrate judges through great effort managed and executed their pretrial criminal duties while protecting the defendants’ and the public’s right of access to the courts. I conclude by discussing the practical use of technology in pre-trial detention hearings after the COVID-19 pandemic.

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