By Linhchi Nguyen
During the months of March and April, 2020, the courts became greatly affected by the increasing outbreak of COVID-19, but at the beginning of March, courthouses, such as the Sacramento and Yolo County Superior Court, maintained their usual business despite recommendations from Centers for Disease Control to social distance and avoid large gatherings.
However, near the end of March, courts were forced to postpone jury trials and cease all public activities as they slowly transitioned in a virtual format – and it became evident of how this pandemic related to many of the cases during this period of time.
Before the major changes due to COVID-19, Yolo County and Sacramento Superior Court held some interesting hearings relating to a parole violation, sexual assault, and a controversial self-defense case.
On March 2, Vanguard Court Watch Intern Nancy Martinez wrote about defendant Michael Villescaz, who was charged for violating his parole because he did not charge his GPS monitor. The defense and deputy district attorney argued over the constitutionality of the condition, but ultimately, the court declined to find the condition unconstitutional.
As the district attorney stated, Villescaz had three days to charge his device but neglected to do so. On multiple occasions, his parole agent, Troy Libonati, repeated instructions on how to use and charge the monitor. As a result, the court sentenced Villescaz to 180 days in county jail.
An infamous case from Yolo County started in March involving a West Sacramento teacher, named Taylor Gholar, who was accused of engaging in sexual dialogue with a 12-year-old student over Instagram direct messages.
Vanguard Court Watch Interns Linh Nguyen and Maxwell C. Myrhum observed the preliminary hearings and wrote about how Gholar met the victim through an after-school program that he was the director of. Gholar and the victim began exchanging messages on Instagram where the defendant allegedly asked the teenager for “sexy photos” and attempted to set up a meet-up location for sex.
The trial, because of COVID-19 delays, was continued on until October, where Gholar was eventually found guilty and sentenced for up to four years in state prison.
In another case in West Sacramento, an act of self-defense from sexual battery led to a vicious assault and attempted murder charges. Deputy DA Preston Schaub argued for no bail on the two defendants, Maile Tupou and Ilalio Timoti, who were involved in a physical altercation with the victims after the victims sexually assaulted Tupou.
However, Tupou’s defense attorney, Jennifer Mouzis, contested that the altercation occurred “in the heat of passion” as the result of a sexual assault. In addition, her client was heavily intoxicated, and there was no clear documentation of the severity of her punches or kicks.
Additionally, Timoti’s attorney, Jared Favero, argued for other remedies to protect public safety including stay-away orders and a SCRAM (continuous alcohol monitoring) device to avoid alcohol. He also mentioned that his client’s allegations were “profoundly disturbing” and denied that the no bail was warranted in this case. Judge David Rosenberg continued to settle the matter to March 17.
Vanguard Court Watch Intern Julia Martinez reported on an interesting case in Yolo County where a woman reported her boyfriend for assault only to deny her claims later in court. The alleged victim testified that she and the defendant, Anthony Mendoza, were arguing over the keys, and she recalled that he threw a beer at her as she tried to run away.
But despite previously mentioning that Mendoza threw an empty laundry basket at her and hit her multiple times, she denied those claims during her testimony. Instead, the victim stated that she was drunk, and Mendoza was only running after her so she could no longer drive under the influence of alcohol. When asked about her injuries, she responded that they were a result of a side job.
By March 15, the dangers of COVID-19 came to the forefront as 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. In California, the Governor ordered schools and bars to close, and restaurants had to cut their seating in half.
Yet, the Monday morning of March 16, hundreds of potential jurors were planned to be jammed into Sacramento and Yolo County superior courthouses. Directly contradicting social distancing guidelines, these jurors were first crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the jury check-in room while waiting in one room to be called in.
One Yolo County attorney stated, “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…The entire process doesn’t work in light of current instructions.”
One Sacramento defense lawyer said he recently attended a retirement party with judges and attorneys, and it was clear that the coronavirus threat was on everyone’s mind: “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.”
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, there was little to no response.
It wasn’t until later that Monday that the courthouses announced that they were essentially shutting down operations. By then, only two other counties have announced more aggressive actions.
Some news reports indicated that Los Angeles County courts were putting jury trials on hiatus while Contra Costa Superior Court announced on their website that their courts will be closed beginning Monday, March 16, 2020 – but hope to re-open on April 1, 2020.
Cases relating to COVID-19 began to pop up more frequently in the month of April, including one, reported by Danielle Silva, about a man who was charged for stealing a COVID-19 sample from Sutter Davis Hospital and impersonating a federal employee for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During the hearing, the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office argued that the defendant, Shaun Lamar Moore, posed “a great risk to public safety” due to leaving the sample unattended and argued for him to be denied bail despite California Judicial Council’s Emergency Order Rule 4.
This rule, also known as the Emergency Bail Schedule, was implemented on April 6 in response to the health risk of incarcerated individuals in prison. At this time, local jails were overcrowded, lacked proper health regulations, mask wearing was virtually nonexistent and there was no real means for social distancing.
The rule, which applies to all individuals held in pretrial custody, required felony and misdemeanor bail to be set to $0 with some exceptions. These exceptions include serious or violent felonies and if the detained person threatened to kill or harm anyone.
Yolo Public Defender Richard Van Zandt denied that the defendant’s actions fall under any of those exceptions.
Judge David Rosenberg, suspecting that the defendant had some mental health issues, ultimately ruled Moore to be released on his own recognizance with a GPS monitor, and he ordered Moore to stay at least 100 feet away from Sutter Davis Hospital.
Also relating to COVID-19, Juan Garcia Urrutia wrote about how the Yolo County Superior Court denied bail/early release requests made under the new emergency rules due to public safety concerns.
Around mid-April, in response to safety concerns surrounding COVID-19, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California and the Judicial Council issued new rules that include reducing bail to zero for most misdemeanors and lower-level felonies. The council also advised California courts to consider early release requests for individuals who may be at risk while in custody.
The Yolo County Courthouse heard multiple requests for early release and reduced bail but refused to make exceptions for defendants who potentially and allegedly posed a public safety concern.
One of these defendants was Damien Thomas, who was convicted with multiple felony charges including inflicting great bodily injury. The judge found that Thomas did pose a public safety concern and has already stipulated to a prison term which disqualified him to be an exception to the new emergency rules.
As the courts transitioned to conducting business in a virtual format in compliance with CDC regulations, most hearings and trials moved over to Zoom. Thus, instead of attending court in-person, Vanguard Court Watch Interns could simply attend the hearings – but necessarily all trials – through a livestream on Youtube.
One intern, Stefanie Young, observed one of these cases involving a defendant representing himself over an absconding and extradition issue.
Defendant Daniel Lopez appeared on the Zoom call from jail, and he expressed to the court his difficulties in communicating with an investigator. Lopez later requested for co-counsel or an attorney to be appointed as he was unable to get the investigation to produce the desired results and that things were not going the way he anticipated.
Judge Fall offered an attorney to provide limited assistance to Lopez, and the court instructed counsel to notify the parole office of Lopez’s decision. Unfortunately, because Lopez is representing himself, the court could not appoint him a co-counsel. The parties then agreed to push the status conference for the end of the month to discuss further information.
Linhchi Nguyen is a fourth year at UC Davis, double majoring in Political Science and English. She currently lives in Sacramento, California.
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