By Shellsea Lomeli
FRESNO, CA – The presence of coronavirus has forced a Fresno County Superior Court judge to debate good cause for failure to appear in court for several cases.
The on-going pandemic has drastically altered the way the courts function across the nation. In Fresno Superior Court, health and safety measures that have been implemented include initiatives like masks being required at all times, utilizing online tools to hold proceedings when possible, and sanitizing frequently in the courtrooms.
COVID-19 has also influenced the way judges make decisions in such unprecedented times. As of July, more than 700 people incarcerated in Fresno county jails had tested positive for COVID-19. Judges now have to consider, more than ever, the health of defendants when they fail to appear in court.
On August 7, 2020, Fresno Judge Glenda Allen-Hill was presented with two different cases where each defendant was not present in court because they were in custody, participating in quarantine.
Defendant Angel Ortiz was scheduled to appear in court for a drug diversion and a pre-preliminary hearing but his case was unable to proceed because of his quarantine status in county jail. His public defender notified the court of the reason for Ortiz’s absence.
“The court finds good cause to continue the matter for two weeks,” Judge Allen-Hill ruled. Ortiz’s hearing was pushed back until August 21 when he will most likely be out of quarantine and in a condition to appear in court to continue with the legal proceedings for his multiple cases.
COVID-19 also prevented 28-year-old Rene Harrison from appearing in court for his arraignment. He was arrested in late June and charged with inflicting corporal injury on a spouse/cohabitant.
Harrison was also being held in quarantine in custody mostly likely due to exposure to the virus or a display of possible symptoms of illness. Judge Allen-Hill ruled that there was good cause for the defendant’s absence and set the arraignment hearing for a later date.
“Is this within the statutory time for arraignment?” The defendant’s lawyer from the office of Fitzgerald, Alvarez, and Ciummo, questioned the lengthy amount of time between his client’s arrest and the arraignment date. Judge Allen-Hill deemed it acceptable considering the quarantine status.
“I would like to hear this matter sooner rather than later,” the judge explained.
There are currently over 2,100 individuals incarcerated in the Fresno County Jail and about 2,000 of them are awaiting trial, meaning that the jail is full of people not found guilty of anything.
The county’s Board of Supervisors has recently committed $3.2 million from the federal CARES Act towards improving testing and monitoring of the virus among the county’s incarcerated population.
“Our goal is to test inmates once a week.” said a representative from the county’s Sheriff’s Department. “We will start testing anyone who is being booked into the jail if we are going to keep them.”
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