Update: All jury trials in Calif. Superior courts have been delayed for 60 days, per an order issued today by California's Chief Justice and Chair of the Judicial Council
By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Scales of justice, Creative Commons via Bing
March 24, 2020 (San Diego) – The COVID-19 emergency is having major impacts on the criminal justice system.
Locally, the Superior Court is shut down for all but emergency procedures. Trials are suspended. Public defender lawyers are barred from visiting defendants in county jails. The Sheriff and District Attorney have announced plans to release some prisoners awaiting arraignment and some medically vulnerable inmates.
At the federal level, the Department of Justice has asked Congress to grant federal judges sweeping new powers to detain people indefinitely during emergencies even if they have not yet been charged with a crime, halt court proceedings, and prohibit anyone with COVID-19 from seeking asylum in the U.S., among other changes that concern civil liberties experts. The Trump administration has also indicated it will arrest anyone who crosses the border seeking asylum.
Court info - updated March 24 2:30 p.m.
Today, March 24, California Chief Justice and Judicial Council Chair Tani Cantil-Sakaueye issued an order suspending all jury trials, criminal trials, and civil trials in Superor Courts for 60 days from today's date. Courts may conduct a trial earlier upon a finding of good cause shown or through use of remote technology, when appropriate. View order.
The San Diego Superior Court has suspended all non-emergency services due to state and county mandates now prohibiting crowds of 10 or more during the pandemic. All criminal, civil, family law, traffic, small claims, juvenile and probate cases will be rescheduled, per a statement issued by the court system.
However courts will still be available for emergency procedure such as ex-parte requests for domestic violence restraining orders, civil harassment restraining orders, and gun violence protective orders. Some judges will remain on the job to handle emergency civil, family law, juvenile and probate orders.
If you were summoned for jury duty, you are asked to check the San Diego Superior Court’s website and Twitter pages for updates.
— For traffic questions, email email@example.com.
— For civil case questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
— For jury questions, email email@example.com.
For probate questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
— For family law questions, email email@example.com.
— For small claims questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Traffic defendants will have a 30 day grace period to appear after the courts reopen.
A full list of the court’s temporary policies and procedures are at http://www.sdcourt.ca.gov/portal/page?_pageid=55,2053814&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL .
Local prisoner releases
District Attorney Summer Stephan and Sheriff Bill Gore issued a joint statement which reads in part, "In the wake of an unprecedented Superior Court closure, the San Diego County District Attorney's Office and San Diego County Sheriff's Department took several proactive steps this week to address the threat of the coronavirus to individuals arrested for low-level, non-violent crimes who normally would have been released if the court was open or can't afford to post jail.”
Release will be considered for certain people arrested for certain low-level, non-violent crimes.
The D.A. said this is the “right thing to do” because of “extreme circumstances that pose a serious health risk to inmates and everyone who has contact with inmates.”
Elsewhere, coronavirus cases have been diagnosed in prisoners including Harvey Weinstein in New York. Some cases have occurred in California prisons, though thus far, not in San Diego prisoners.
Actions the D.A. and Sheriff announced include:
- Release of defendants who are not threats to public safety but who can’t post bail and would be behind bars for weeks or months without arraignment due to courts being closed;
- Release of anyone in custody if charges are not going to be filed;
- Identifying some awaiting trial or sentencing who may be eligible for release;
- Prioritizing release of vulnerable “medically fragile” inmates if appropriate;
- Possible early release of people near the end of their sentences.
Stephan assure, however, that “People aren’t going to get a free pass if they commit a crime.”
Proposed federal powers
The U.S. Justice Department has asked Congress to give the Attorney General the power to allow chief federal judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies, even if they have not been charged with crimes, Politico reports. Such power would be granted during emergencies such as natural disasters, civil disobedience or pandemics.
The proposal would also the chief judges power to halt court proceedings and would apply to “any statutes or rules of procedure otherwise affecting pre-arrest, post-arrest, pre-trial, trial, and post-trial procedures in criminal and juvenile proceedings and all civil process and proceedings,” the draft legislative language reportedly reads.
Civil liberties attorneys have voiced concerns due to the suspension of habeus corpus – the constitutional right to appear in court and ask a judge for release after an arrest—or even without arrest.
Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called the proposal “terrifying” and told Politico, “So that means you could be arrested and never brought before a judge until they decide that the emergency or the civil disobedience is over.”
The proposed legislation would also postpone the statute of limitations for criminal investigations and civil proceedings for a year after a national emergency ends. In addition, it would allow videoconference hearings for arraignments without consent from defendants, which violates a constitutional right to a public trial and to be present in court.
The Trump administration also seeks to prohibit people with Covid-19 from applying for asylum, even after a quarantine period. That has advocates concerned over people fleeing violence, famine or war.
Trump has also announced its intent to deny entry to all migrants crossing the U.S. Mexico border illegally as well as to anyone who crosses and asks for asylum – though the latter violates international law. The Trump administraton indicates it is taking the steps to keep Covid-19 out of detention centers in the U.S.