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Sep 23

September 23, 2020 TML Coronavirus Update #126

Posted on September 23, 2020 at 2:53 PM by TML Staff

Urgent Updates


What guidance has the Texas Supreme Court provided to municipal courts regarding in-person and remote proceedings? 


On September 18, the Supreme Court of Texas issued their 26th Emergency Order Regarding the COVID-19 State of Disaster, which provides limitations and criteria related to jury trials across the state, including for municipal courts. This new executive order replaces the 22nd Emergency Order, and is effective beginning October 1, 2020, and running through December 31, 2020.


Specific to municipal courts, the Emergency Order No. 26 provides the following:


-“A justice or municipal court must not hold an in-person jury proceeding, including jury selection or a jury trial, prior to December 1.”


-“In criminal cases where confinement in jail or prison is a potential punishment, remote jury proceedings must not be conducted without appropriate waivers and consent obtained on the record from the defendant and prosecutor. In all other cases, including cases in justice and municipal courts, remote jury proceedings must not be conducted unless the court has complied with paragraph 6(d).” (Note: Paragraph 6(d) provides that “the court has considered on the record any objection or motion related to proceeding with the jury proceeding at least seven days before the jury proceeding or as soon as practicable if the objection or motion is made or filed within seven days of the jury proceeding.” It is unclear if a non-record municipal court must consider any objections or motions “on the record.”)


-That the regional presiding judge must “ensure that all trial court judges in each region, including justices of the peace and municipal court judges, do not conduct in-person proceedings, including in-person jury proceedings, inconsistent with the Court’s Orders and the latest Guidance issued by the Office of Court Administration” and “assist each region’s local governments and courts to ensure that courts have the ability to conduct court business.”


In addition to the above, municipal court staff must also consider the following requirements for any non-jury proceeding: “Courts must not conduct in-person proceedings contrary to the Guidance for All Court Proceedings During COVID-19 Pandemic (“Guidance”) issued by the Office of Court Administration, which may be updated from time to time, regarding social distancing, maximum group size, and other restrictions and precautions. Prior to holding any in-person proceedings, a court must submit an operating plan that is consistent with the requirements set forth in the Guidance. Courts must continue to use all reasonable efforts to conduct proceedings remotely.”


Interested city officials can access more COVID-19 municipal court information from the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center (TMCEC). Municipal court personnel can also contact TMCEC’s legal department with questions about the application of the new order.


Further Updates


Do the governor’s motor vehicle registration statute suspensions affect junked vehicle ordinance enforcement?


That’s a good question, and even the experts aren’t sure. The ordinance enforcement issue relates to the use of an expired motor vehicle registration as evidence that a vehicle is “junked.” But the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation says towing from private property is suspended, which may render enforcement moot. 


Back in March, the governor suspended various statutes and rules requiring registration for motor vehicles that operate on public highways. (The idea is – presumably – that registration isn’t necessarily a safety issue, and the requirement to do so would lead to long lines and crowds at DMV offices.) 


The statutory definition of a “junked vehicle” is a motor vehicle that is self-propelled, displays an expired license plate or does not display a license plate, and is: (1) wrecked, dismantled or partially dismantled, or discarded; or (2) inoperable and has remained inoperable for more than 72 consecutive hours, if the vehicle is on public property, or 30 consecutive days, if the vehicle is on private property. Transportation Code § 683.0711 allows a city to adopt a more inclusive definition of a “junked vehicle” than the statutory definition. Prosecutors typically use expired registration as evidence to prove that a vehicle meets the definition. Without it, the elements become much more difficult to prove.


None of that may matter, however, because TDLR has advised that the governor’s suspensions prevent a towing company from towing vehicles from private property for expired registration or renewals:


“Due to the extension granted for obtaining the initial registration or renewal of registration for a vehicle, tow companies may not tow vehicles from private property for expired registration or renewals until further notice.”


The bottom line is that the suspensions could be read to have created a sort of “grace period” for vehicle registration, making enforcement of a junked vehicle ordinance questionable. As with all complex legal matters, each city official should consult with their city attorney prior to acting (or not acting) on the above.


City attorneys with questions should contact Amber McKeon-Mueller, TML assistant general counsel, at