COVID and the Courts: The Pandemic Places a Strain on Proceedings – ‘977’ Appearances Increase

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By Dorrin Akbari

SACRAMENTO, CA – Half of the cases on the Sacramento County Superior Court Dept. 62 docket last Friday were “977” appearances—a sign of changing court dynamics in the COVID era.

Under Penal Code section 977, defendants can appear solely through their defense counsel in all cases in which they are charged only with a misdemeanor. Courts have seen an increase in 977 appearances in part due to mandatory two-week quarantines imposed on defendants exposed to COVID-19 while in custody.

Judge Timothy Frawley presided over 16 cases in the morning, eight of which were conducted without the defendant being present. Among the latter cases, five defendants weren’t present for medical reasons.

Of note was the case of Frank McCormick, for whom Assistant Public Defender Hubert Chen appeared “977.”

Chen and Deputy District Attorney Nikita Skokov requested that McCormick’s trial readiness conference and jury trial dates be reset to later points in time. Judge Frawley readily granted the requests.

It appeared that the matter had been settled. Just as he was about to exit the courtroom, however, PD Chen turned around and re-approached the stand.

“My apologies, your Honor. I have one final request. Could you please order a doctor or nurse to be sent to visit my client?” inquired Chen.

“Do you not believe he’s getting adequate medical care?” replied Judge Frawley.

Chen confirmed that was the case, noting that his client had not been seen by medical staff while in custody since March 25, despite suffering from a chronic disease.

Judge Frawley obliged PD Chen’s request.

The medical strain placed on jails and prisons was further put on display during two requests for mental competency checks.

Assistant Public Defenders John Buchholz and Damien Jovel both requested mental competency evaluations for their clients to determine whether they are fit to stand trial. Both were faced with the reality that doctors capable of performing competency interviews are in short supply.

“We don’t have very many doctors available,” said Judge Frawley in response to APD Buchholz’s request.

After consulting his clerk about the doctors’ schedules, Frawley assigned a primary and alternate physician to Buchholz’s client—as is standard practice. He then provided the defense with a secondary alternate: “Just in case the first two turn out to not be available.”

The proceedings of Buchholz’s and Jovel’s clients will remain suspended until they receive their evaluations.

Dorrin Akbari graduated from UC Berkeley in 2019 with a B.A. in Legal Studies and a minor in Persian. She is from San Jose, CA.


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