By Nadia Kazempoor
OAKLAND, CA – Judge Yolanda Northridge decided, alongside her defense and prosecution attorneys, that the steady rise of positive COVID-19 cases at Santa Rita Jail provides grounds for pushing back certain pretrials here in Alameda County Superior Court to at least mid-April.
“I have an offer…however, it does involve jail. Are we doing anything as far as jail and COVID? Are we setting up times? Is there any plan for jail?” defense attorney Robert Byers asked the courtroom about defendant Kevin Hernandeznavare.
The courtroom was gathered for Hernandeznavare’s informal felony pretrial hearing, in which he was charged with carrying a concealed firearm, loaded firearm, knowingly possessing a machine gun, and possessing a bump stock.
With positive COVID-19 cases surging in Alameda County within recent months, an issue has arisen for the legal community: Is it ethical to place defendants in custody and put them at risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the penal system? Is pushing back hearings the solution?
As the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) approaches a staggering number of 49,040 positive cases of COVID-19 within its correctional facilities, courtrooms must decide if custody is truly necessary for the law to be upheld and respected.
The increased threat of COVID-19 offers a difficult dichotomy. On one hand, law and order must be maintained, but on the other hand, taking a defendant into custody with an increased chance of catching the virus can be criticized as unethical treatment.
When asked to respond to the defense’s request, prosecutor Kevin Ikuma replied, “So there are three asymptomatic positive cases at Santa Rita at the moment… but if we want to put this case over a little distance, I don’t have any problem with that if that makes the defense more comfortable.”
COVID-19 has forced essentially all Americans to master the art of compromise. The inconvenience the pandemic has plagued the world with is not only seen socially, but politically, economically, culturally, and most definitely legally.
Compromise is always integral in the courtroom but proves to be even more so when the health and wellness of a defendant are put at stake. Both attorneys Ikuma and Byer seemed dedicated to protecting the liberties of Hernandeznavare as a defendant and decided against sending him into custody at this time.
The pretrial was moved to April 14, when the Alameda County COVID-19 surge will hopefully have begun its plateau.
The last thing that Santa Rita Jail needs right now is another scandal, say critics. Given police brutality during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests alongside the CDCR’s current surge of positive COVID-19 cases, the jail is notably susceptible to community criticism and backlash.
Nadia Kazempoor is a court watch reporter for The Vanguard at Berkeley. She is a freshman Political Science student at Cal, originally from Huntington Beach, CA.
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