By Macy Lu and Linhchi Nguyen
The steady increase in Covid-19 cases all throughout July forced courts and prisons across Sacramento, Yolo, and San Francisco Counties to take rapid corrective measures in their day-to-day operations.
And by the end of August, California prisons were facing severe outbreaks of COVID-19, causing some defendants to miss their own preliminary hearings.
Other than that, other interesting cases appeared during these months including ones about sloppy burglaries, a courthouse vandalism, issues over interpreters, and a debate over a statute concerning criminal protective orders.
The week of July 13 saw Sacramento Superior Court move all proceedings outside the courthouse in a desperate effort to mitigate the spread of the virus indoors. Court Watch Intern Greg Walton noted that “this was not a small inconvenience…there were people outside of the courthouse seemingly unaware, lost.”
Even for court regulars such as bailiffs, Public Defenders, and District Attorneys, this set up proved to be a significant vexation. Walton reported how they had to discuss “court strategy, plea offers and future court dates…outside under that tent in the midst of a Sacramento heat wave.”
Courthouses were not the only places summer’s COVID-19 wave affected.
The San Francisco County Jail also implemented drastic changes in an effort to “prevent detainment for misdemeanor charges or less serious felonies, provided the defendant does not have a previous record,” according to a July report by interns Anna Judson and Ariella Seidman-Parra.
The jail achieved this by enforcing the Buffin judgment, a consequence of the 2019 Buffin court case in which a federal judge ruled that the use of the felony and misdemeanor bail schedule was unconstitutional.
Despite pandemic-induced complications to the legal system in July, courts were able to review and rule on numerous cases through online communication platforms such as Zoom and YouTube Live.
In the first week of July, there was a preliminary hearing at Sacramento County Superior Court in which six defendants were convicted because of sloppy burglary practices. Intern Lauren Smith reported that evidence from their own text messages from over a year and a half ago proved that they “were involved in four different burglaries in the Sacramento and Roseville areas.”
One defendant’s internet search history provided additional proof of their involvement in the burglaries. He had searched for “Fox 40 News,” “Most Wanted,” “surveillance video,” his own name, “how to steal,” and local police department websites.
Finally, an exchange of photos between the defendants showing them in possession of the victim’s laptop, gold chains and a ring made their convictions all but final.
Also in July, Yolo County Superior Court tried defendant Jeffrey Matthew Corson, who allegedly threw a rock at a courthouse entrance door earlier in the year. His isolated behavior after his detainment led court officials to question his mental stability.
At the time Intern Elizabeth Cho reported on the case, attempts by Katherine Warburton, a medical director at the California Department of State Hospitals, to evaluate him proved difficult after she discovered “Corson was not speaking to anyone.
“Even more confusion about where Corson was and where he should be” followed when it became known that Corson’s attorney, Ronald Johnson, was uninformed of attempts to move him to Crestwood Behavioral Health. At the time of Cho’s reporting, the judge had decided he will update Corson’s status based on Warburton’s analysis.
At the start of August, Intern Jose Medina wrote about one case in Yolo County that had to reschedule a new arraignment due to difficulty of obtaining an interpreter for the defendant, Minh Quang Ly.
Unfortunately, this is just one of the numerous times that a California court was unable to provide an interpreter, making it extremely difficult for non-English-speaking defendants to communicate with the attorneys and judge.
Medina wrote about how the deficiency has an ugly past in the state, where Mexican defendants in the late 1800s were unable to express their testimonies while standing trial because they did not have access to Spanish interpreters.
Judicial historians noted the importance for defendants to be able to fully understand their charges, rights and the law in order to receive a just and speedy due process. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to garner the necessary interpreters, and defendants such as Ly often have to face justice delayed.
Intern Medina later reported on another interesting hearing regarding a debate about whether a court has authority to extend a criminal protection order for the victim. Defendant Pedro Rodriguez was called into court in Yolo County, where Deputy District Attorney Deanna Hays requested the court, on behalf of the victim, extend his expiring criminal protection order.
A debate then erupted between Hays and the defense attorney, Jeffrey Raven, over whether the language of Penal Code section 136.2 allows such a renewal. Hays argued that, similar to a restraining order, the victim has the ability to modify an order, which typically occurs “all the time.”
Raven disagreed, saying that such modifications require a change in circumstance such as a violation of probation, not just an expiration of the order.
To settle the conflict, Judge David Rosenberg even consulted with the victim’s counsel, Professor John E.B. Myers. But in the end, he ruled that the court has no authority to extend the criminal protection order. He refused to “make a new law and to read something into the statute that’s not there.”
In another case, a homeless couple faced burglary charges for stealing items from a garage and shed in order to get by during COVID-19. Intern Madeline Gile wrote about how police officers caught William Queen and Tami Flores in possession of stolen property, including a Honda generator, car battery, tools, and keys.
Prior to this, Flores was staying over at the Valley Oaks Inn, which was being used to house medically-compromised homeless individuals during COVID-19. Queen was also caught breaking into the inn’s laundry room to steal some of the staff members’ belongings.
“It is clear he is an opportunist, and a person who will commit theft to get by,” said Yolo County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Michelle Serafin.
Upon hearing the evidence, Judge David Reed decided to try the defendants for first degree burglary.
Lastly, a defendant failed to appear to his preliminary hearing in Yolo County from Placer County Jail, where a big COVID-19 outbreak was reported. As Intern Julian Verdon wrote, defendant Eric Huff’s absence occurred amid reports of severe outbreaks of COVID-19 among California jails.
According to Rowena Shaddox at FOX40, over a dozen cases of the virus infected both inmates and one of the correctional officers in June. At that time, the jail staff was just starting to wear masks and the jail went into lockdown.
In light of the circumstances, Judge Peter Williams decided to drop Huff’s case from the calendar and deal with the issue at a later time.
Macy is a junior from Orange County, CA, studying Communications and English at UC Davis. She loves meeting people, reading books, and writing creatively.
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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