By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
SACRAMENTO – When will “live” – as opposed to “virtual” live-streamed-on-Zoom – hearings, including trials, resume at the Sacramento County Superior Court?
No doubt in-custody defendants, attorneys – whose desks are piling up with file folders of backed up cases – and even news reporters who cover the courthouse want to know.
Answer: Not anytime soon – it’s been about two months since the courthouse went “dark.”
Although Presiding Judge Russell L. Hom could change the orders, as could the Judicial Council that governs California’s superior courthouses, bets are late June, at the earliest, before jury trials may resume.
And, if Thursday was any indication, getting in and around the main downtown courthouse is going to be more difficult as of Friday.
In a press release issued late Thursday, the courthouse announced for those who do come to the courthouse – out-of-custody defendants who refuse to do Zoom hearings, sworn witnesses, attorneys and others who want to access “bins” that hold new filing – there will be mandatory health checks.
Those entering the building will have to undergo a temperature check – it’s left to one’s imagination just exactly how they’ll do that – by Sheriff’s deputies, and those entering will have to be wearing a mask, although the courthouse is like a ghost town with no live courthouse hearings.
“Due to the court’s expansion of court services, it is necessary to ensure that our employees, justice partners and the public are not entering a court facility with a high fever. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider a person to have a high fever when their measured body temperature reaches 100.4 F.,” according to a press statement Thursday by the Superior Court.
Anyone who tests at 100.4 degrees F or greater, or who refuses to be screened, will be denied entry, according to the statement.
“Effective, May 15, 2020, and pursuant to a court order, the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department will begin daily temperature screening of employees and any other court users entering a Sacramento Superior Court facility who are required to pass through security entrance screening,” the missive stated.
Previously, boxes where criminal and civil pleadings are filed were near the entrance – now they are being moved further inside the building, requiring people to be health and mask-checked.
And, people will have to be masked up. Once, in a bygone era – a few months ago – wearing masks in a courthouse and many other places might get someone arrested.
Now, it’s the order of the court.
“The court is committed to ensure that all necessary safety precautions are in place. We realize that some of these measures are inconvenient or somewhat uncomfortable and would not be required but for the continuing serious health risk from COVID-19,” said the court, adding that the “health and safety of our employees and the public is of primary concern during the current COVID-19 pandemic.”
And, about those trials with live juries?
Although people are now getting jury summonses, they don’t mean much – people are just being advised to check in with a phone call, and are then being told they won’t be required to report and they have “satisfied” their jury service.
Good thing, because courthouse officials privately have said since March that one of their biggest fears was trying to force citizens to do jury duty, where they would be packed into small courtrooms for jury selection and then sitting for days or weeks listening to testimony. And, then locked in a jury deliberation room.
Wholesale civil disobedience was predicted by one court official.
So, will there ever be a return to normal in courtrooms?
Like life in general after COVID-19, maybe not. Live streamed hearings on Zoom – with defendants and defense lawyers in one place, the judge and prosecutor in another – now seem to be popular, judges and lawyers are getting the hang of technology, and it may be less expensive.
Plus, live streaming is more transparent. “The whole world is watching,” one judge said last week, although his Zoom hearing showed only 25 viewers.
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