By Shellsea Lomeli
SACRAMENTO, CA – The Sacramento County Superior Court resumed criminal jury trials about a week ago, but with new, never-before-seen health precautions after a nearly three-month suspension in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
After the cases of COVID-19 began to rise quickly in California and the U.S., the Sacramento Superior Court suspended jury trials on March 20, 2020. The Court also strictly limited public access to court facilities. Many of the court proceeds began operating via zoom and streaming on Youtube to continue some form of access to the public.
Under the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the federal Speedy Trial Act, a defendant in a criminal case has the right to a speedy trial. Defendants also have the right to a trial by a jury of their peers. But the California Judicial Council, in response to the Governor’s Stay at Home orders, is empowered to suspend certain rights in an emergency, and it did.
But now, after the Stay at Home orders have been rescinded, and acknowledging the rights of defendants, Sacramento Superior Court resumed criminal jury trials, but utilizing a plan consisting of several guidelines developed to ensure the health and safety of jurors and all parties involved.
According to a statement from the Court, the plan for safe access to the justice system includes the following: Stay at home if you are sick, reduction in jurors, mandatory facial coverings, non-invasive temperature screenings, and enhance sanitation.
Several of the health and safety measures listed align with the 75-page resource guide for developed by the Pandemic Continuity of Operations Working Group.
While the resource guide does not contain explicit rules or standards, it was created to provide a range of considerations and approaches for California trial courts to draw from, the court said.
The guide is divided into seven different sections with Jury Management being one of them.
“Courts will need to balance public health orders and prospective jurors’ concerns with the need to conduct trials and ensure individual due process rights are upheld,” stated the resource guide.
Sacramento Superior Court has attempted to respond to the concerns of jurors by developing the Juror Service Center page on their site to provide sufficient COVID related information specifically for those attending jury service.
In alliance with CDC guidelines, “anyone exhibiting a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher will not be permitted to enter any court facility,” the release stated.
To reduce jurors being packed too tightly, the Court is significantly decreasing the number of jurors who are asked to report for jury duty and their arrival times will be staggered throughout the day. Normally up to several hundred jurors jam into the 2nd floor jury area.
Jury selection, when about 60 jurors on the panel are packed like sardines in one courtroom being interviewed by the judge and lawyers, will also change. Because of social distancing guidelines, only a handful or jurors will be in the courtroom at a time.
The Court reminded the public that they cannot resume trials during the COVID-19 crisis without the participation of citizens, noting “Trial by jury is more than a fundamental Constitutional right…It is a critical safeguard of individual liberties and helps keep us anchored to our constitutional principles.”
The Court quoted John Adams, emphasizing that “trial by jury [is] the heart and lungs of liberty,” adding that the quote may actually have belonged to Abigail Adams based on increased historical evidence.
A more recent release from the Sacramento Superior Court emphasized and clarified the limits and changes regarding public access to criminal jury trials.
“Public spectator seating for criminal jury trials and some limited sentencing hearings will be selected by lottery,” stated the Court’s Public Information Officer. The lottery selection will be made once a week on Fridays, and will remain in effect as long as shelter in place and other COVID-19 safety precautions are in place.
Other California courts such as the San Francisco Superior Court have begun restoring several of their operational services that had been interrupted by the global health crisis.
The criminal trials for the Sacramento Superior Court are pre-assigned on Wednesdays and reported in a publicly accessible calendar.
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