By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
SACRAMENTO/DAVIS – Late Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that all U.S. residents cancel or postpone gatherings of 50 or more people for the next two months – the most aggressive federal guidance issued so far to combat the coronavirus outbreak.
In California, schools are closed, and as of Sunday night, the Governor ordered bars closed and cafes and restaurants to cut their seating in half.
But yet, this Monday morning, according to a VANGUARD investigation, hundreds and hundreds of potential jurors will be jammed into Sacramento and Yolo county superior courthouses – first crammed shoulder to shoulder in the jury check-in room, and then all sitting in one room waiting to be called.
“Jurors are all brought together in the jury assembly room, which is referred to as an airport terminal, and they’re made to sit for hours together. Kids at school are being told to stand five feet from each other. Think about it. The entire process doesn’t work in light of current instructions,” said one Yolo County attorney.
Even when jurors are broken down into jury panels, there will be 60 or so per panel packed into a courtroom for jury selection. And even after that, there’s 14 jurors, and alternates sitting about a foot from each other, joined by a prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, clerk, bailiff and witnesses – let alone observers – in each jury trial courtroom, some as small as a home’s living room or so.
Not exactly the six foot “social distancing” now being stressed by federal, state and local health officials to help stop the spread of the deadly COVID-19.
One Sacramento defense lawyer said he recently attended a retirement party with judges, defense lawyers, district attorneys (including Sacramento DA Ann Marie Schubert), and CA Supreme Court Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye. And the coronavirus threat dominated the conversations.
“People were afraid to shake hands, even in the context of a group of professionals who should be counted on to have good hygiene habits. The consensus appeared to be that all of us anticipate the courts being closed in the near future. The big concern is that the crowds of people waiting for cases to be called poses a real problem of spreading the virus.
“Prosecutors and defense attorneys also expressed concern that jurors would not be able to focus on the facts of criminal cases due to legitimate health concerns. The primary concerns were how to keep cases moving while protecting the participants – judges, courtroom staff, attorneys, defendants, jurors, witnesses, and the general public. The discussion was very sober and somber,” he said.
When the VANGUARD queried Sacramento and Yolo County officials late last week about the dangers of such practices in obvious conflict with federal, state and local mandates – and common sense – there was little to no response.
One Sacramento courthouse source noted, “There are a lot of balls in the air as we work through these minute-to-minute changes.”
But, generally, in Sacramento and Yolo County courthouses, it’s business as usual. They are not alone in California – only two counties have announced more aggressive actions.
Los Angeles County courts reportedly are going to put jury trials on hiatus as of Monday, but that’s only according to some news reports.
And Contra Costa Superior Court made this announcement on its website late last week:
“(I)n response to the unique and continuing public safety challenge presented by the coronavirus (COVID-19) and the numerous public health orders suggesting or requiring that public gatherings be limited…(our courts) will be closed at all locations…beginning Monday, March 16, 2020. Court locations hope to re-open at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, April 1st, 2020. This is in an abundance of caution to help limit the spread of the virus and the potential for future exposure.”
In the Federal court system, trials appear to be going on as usual, although the Eastern District of California is prohibiting anyone who visited China, South Korea, Japan, Italy or Iran in the past two weeks from visiting any district courthouse. The same exclusion applies to “those who have had close contact with someone who has visited those countries in the past two weeks, those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or have been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed, those who have been asked to self-quarantine and those experiencing fever, cough or shortness of breath.”
But there is some movement in San Francisco. Or attempts anyway.
Mano Raju, the San Francisco public defender, said he’s requesting that the jail release prisoners who are in lock-up waiting for trials, especially those at the greatest risk, including those over 60 years of age, and those with compromised immune systems, including those with heart or lung diseases, HIV and cancer.
Those measures, he said, would reduce the chance of an outbreak in the jail, which is already cramped and the subject of lawsuits because of unsanitary conditions. He also recommended reducing the jail population with “own recognizance” releases with electronic monitoring as necessary.
But trials in overcrowded courtrooms appear to be going on as usual.
In Sacramento Superior Court, one official with knowledge of court practices cited a Judicial Council posting for all trial courts in the state, effective today/Monday.
“Sacramento’s jury pool call-in numbers will be reduced and staggered into groups of 4 (2 in the a.m./2 in the p.m.). The Presiding Judge also recommends reducing the panel size for felony and misdemeanor jury trials,” the official said.
“We are also looking at reducing number of traffic appearances, civil jury trials and the like where we have higher volumes of folks. The informational bulletin also urges sick folks including jurors to ask for continuances or request to appear telephonically or Skype, etc. in Family Law/Civil cases,” said another Sacramento courthouse official.
Although Sacramento County offices of the District Attorney and Sacramento County Public Defender did not answer inquiries to comment, some individual Assistant Public Defenders said they not only support efforts by the PD Office in SF to get nonviolent, especially vulnerable pretrial detainees out of jail but are actively hoping to file motions to do just that in Sacramento County.
An internal memo to public defenders in Yolo County suggests that defense lawyers postpone out-of-custody trials by 60-90 days at least, but still set trials for those in jail as usual.
Far from California, in usually more conservative Florida, Miami-Dade Chief Judge Bertila Soto said judges may soon begin to reschedule hearings and trials “farther out in the calendar year” for people not currently in jail.
Best quote of the week that epitomizes what Sacramento and Yolo lawyers believe, but won’t say publicly, probably comes from Miami lawyer Jonathan Blecher, who rescheduled one routine case to avoid going in on last week.
“The justice building is like the bar in ‘Star Wars.’ It’s a crazy place where anything can incubate, and people are coming from all over the place. I would rather not be there.”
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