By Koda Slingluff
SACRAMENTO – Sacramento County Judge Ernest Sawtelle no doubt subscribes to the old adage, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
When a Sacramento County Jail inmate asked Sawtelle here for a compassionate, temporary release to attend a relative’s funeral, the judge—after noticing the defendant has a history of failing to appear back to court—said no, and set bail for her release instead.
Defendant Brittany McCluskey asked the judge to grant her release so that she could attend her great-grandfather’s funeral, but Judge Sawtelle was unsure if he should grant the request, because leaving and returning to a jail could be problematic for the spread of coronavirus.
Deputy District Attorney Sterling Wilkins objected to McCluskey’s request, noting the defendant had two prior failures to appear to the court within the last year. The reason she was in custody, in fact, was because of her failures to appear.
Judge Sawtelle decided to ask the court bailiff for her opinion as a peace officer.
“Now, deputy, is there any problem with doing this? Given the COVID situation, are they gonna have a problem with bringing her back in unless she’s tested?” Sawtelle asked the bailiff. “I just don’t want to create a major issue.”
The bailiff answered candidly, “I don’t know what the protocol is when admitted into custody. Some people are in mandatory isolation for a period of time, others are not. I don’t know the rhyme or reason for it.”
Then, she added, “I will say, your honor, as far as turning themselves in, the sheriff’s department would rather people not be turning themselves in right now.”
“Yeah, you know. My heart says I’d like to accommodate this. But my brain tells me given the situation we have it’s just not something I’m willing to do, unless I’m willing to just release her on her own recognizance and then she can go wherever she wants to go,” Sawtelle said.
Looking at the case information, Sawtelle noticed that bail had never been set.
“No bail bench warrant was issued, but nobody’s ever addressed bail yet. So she’s now on a no bail hold?” he asked the room. “There’s no justification for that just because she failed to appear one time.”
Sawtelle decided on a compromise. “This is what I’m going to do: I’m going to set a $10,000 bail. If she can make that ($1,000 cash to a bail bonds firm) she can go to the funeral.”
He reminded the defendant about the seriousness of attending her hearings.
“I don’t know why you failed to show up previously but things will only get bad for you if you don’t show up. As you know, you’re now in custody because you didn’t show up. For no other reason.”
Assistant Public Defender Sameera Ali pointed out that McCluskey may not be able to afford the cost of bail. Ali began, “I just don’t know if Ms. McCluskey is going to be able to come up with the…”
“Well, I don’t know that either,” Sawtelle cut her off. “But I’m not going to release her on her own recognizance given that she failed to appear and a no bail bench warrant was issued. And she’s got two pending charges.”
“So Ms. McCluskey, if you can raise bail then you can attend your relative’s funeral. But you’ll have to appear on the 9th day of next month for your preliminary hearing,” Sawtelle said before concluding the day’s hearing.
Koda is a junior at UC Berkeley, majoring in Philosophy and minoring in Rhetoric. He is from Ventura, CA.
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