By Ryan Kaika
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – Even the judge wore a mask—complying with new recommendations to wear “face coverings” to combat COVID-19—as Sacramento County Superior Court preliminary hearings began again Monday for the first time in weeks.
The judge, some lawyers and deputies attending the prelims in Dept. 60 appeared to be following the Center for Disease Control’s recent recommendation to wear “face cloth coverings in public settings.”
Not everybody wore the masks, but the courthouse was slowly learning—just as it has learned to use Zoom’s video conferencing platform to social distance defendants, staff and the judge to combat the spread of COVID-19.
The Zoom preliminary hearings on Monday were a first—late last week, the courts ramped back up, using Zoom to conduct arraignments for the first time.
After a delay in the hearings, Judge Stephen Acquisto appeared onscreen wearing a blue surgical mask. The bailiff wore one too, as did several other deputies and two defense attorneys throughout the morning.
Despite improvements last week in using the video conferencing system, challenges arose, again affecting court proceedings.
“This may be a good time to indicate for the court that I have not had an opportunity yet to speak with my client in any manner, confidentially or not. I was advised that if I was prepared and logged on at 8:15 I would have that opportunity,” Assistant Public Defender Shelby Alberts said about the early delay. She was granted 10 minutes to speak off camera with her client.
She added to her statement by saying, “I also would note for the record that (the defendant) has not been provided with a mask consistent with the CDC guidelines.”
The judge agreed. “It’d be nice if he had a mask (but) that’s the deputies’ and the sheriff’s protocol and supply, and I don’t know anything about that,” said Judge Acquisto, sighing through his blue mark.
Last Friday, the Vanguard reported spotty sanitation efforts—in between arraignments the defendants’ “cage” was cleaned occasionally, not after each new defendant entered.
Monday, those efforts apparently ceased altogether in Dept. 60—defendants sitting in the “cage” repeatedly leaned against sections that were touched earlier and had yet to be cleaned while the streaming occurred. COVID-19 can live on metal, like the bars, for days, say the experts.
In the first preliminary hearing of the day, detailing a methamphetamine possession charge, Judge Acquisto discussed privacy concerns with Deputy District Attorney Brandon Jack and Assistant Public Defender Alberts—he was concerned that witnesses may watch the hearings on Zoom prior to joining the hearing.
“There are different issues we’re trying to balance,” Judge Acquisto assured, later stating that “if it’s a question of undermining the integrity of the process versus having it public, I say let’s have a process that has integrity and not have it live-streamed on YouTube.” The short-lived discussion ended there, and the stream continued.
Assistant Public Defender Amanda Massimini would later state similar concerns in the second preliminary hearing of the day, admitting that she was concerned with “witnesses who may be able to view YouTube while other witnesses are testifying.”
Concerns for her clients’ well-being echoed the earlier sentiments from Alberts.
“He’s (her client) also concerned about being in custody right now as an asthmatic… and that is a condition that I share, which is why I’m wearing a mask to court today,” Massimini said.
Both preliminary hearings ended in uncertainty, as future dates were proposed for later hearings; however, it was noted that these may be pushed out as a result of the ongoing pandemic.
“Your guess is as good as mine as to when this will be over,” Judge Acquisto said about scheduling appearances during the looming health crisis.
Monday’s technological missteps uncovered several potential issues—the balance between transparency and privacy appears to be the biggest one.
And then there were the COVID-19 sanitation and safety efforts. Practiced by some. But not all.
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