This article picks up where the previous ended as far as how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the criminal justice system in Los Angeles County – specifically, from mid June 2020 to the present date.
In addition, included below is an interview with Ninaz Saffari, the managing attorney of the Los Angeles Defense Attorney Law Firm (LADALF), about her personal experiences in representing clients during the shutdown, as well as her thoughts regarding the near future of criminal proceedings in the county.
To reiterate, for the first month or so of the lockdown, few if any of LA County’s courthouses (including 38 Superior Courts) were holding any type of hearing, including via telephone. But since the end of June 2020, courts have been slowly opening up with telephonic and even some in-person hearings. Also, as of the date of this article, this zero-dollar bail schedule remains in place.
June 2020 (continued)
Mandatory Facemasks and Social Distancing
Since June 5th, pursuant to another mandatory order from LA County Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile, face masks have been required in all courthouses and courtrooms. Anyone found to be in violation of this order will be escorted from that particularly building by sheriff’s deputies.
According to Presiding Judge Brazile’s Order:
“The Court has taken extensive measures to reduce the number of persons coming to its courthouses, including limiting the matters to be heard on any given day, spreading out the scheduling of cases, directing prospective jurors to courtrooms instead of jury assembly rooms, facilitating remote telephonic/video court transactions with the virtual Clerk’s Office, online and remote Self-Help services, remote mediations, teleworking employees, encouraging counsel and litigants to appear remotely, and implementing scheduled appointments for in-person transactions at the courthouse.”
And, of course, since March, social distancing in the courthouses and courtrooms has been strictly enforced by sheriff’s deputies as well as other security personnel.
LA County Formally Enacts a Temporary Zero-Bail Schedule
On June 20th, Presiding Judge Brazile formally enacted an emergency zero bail schedule for all criminal courts in the county. The only exception would be for anyone who had been previously released on the zero bail schedule but had been re-arrested during the pandemic. In those cases, those individuals would be subject to the regular bail schedule for misdemeanors and felonies.
See felony bail schedule at: https://www.lacourt.org/division/criminal/pdf/felony.pdf; for misdemeanors and infractions, see: https://www.lacourt.org/division/criminal/pdf/felony.pdf.
But an exception to that exception would be any instance in which the original zero-bail offense was resolved prior to the new offense.
LA County Criminal Courts and Courtrooms Reopen
On June 22nd, virtually all criminal courts and courtrooms reopened throughout the county.
LA County Postpones Criminal Trials Until September 14, 2020
On July 10, 2020, effective immediately, Presiding Judge Brazile – with California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye’s approval – issued a new emergency order whereby criminal trials would resume no earlier than September 14th. See lacourt.org.
Further Extensions for Felony Arraignments, Preliminary Hearings, and Misdemeanor Proceedings
Also that same day (July 10th), Presiding Judge Brazile ordered the continuance of the following extensions:
- he extension of the forty-eight hour deadline for felony arraignments to seven days until August 8th;
- The ten-court-day deadline for preliminary hearings (all felony cases) to thirty court days (i.e., days when the court is in session; thus, excluding weekends and court holidays);
- A ninety-day extension for status report and progress report deadline which were otherwise due between July 10th and August 8th;
- A ninety-day continuance for all post-arraignment misdemeanor proceedings which otherwise would have been held between July 10th and August 8th; and
- All non-jury criminal trials and juvenile administrative hearings would be continued until further notice.
Extensions for Juvenile Criminal Proceedings
The following juvenile criminal proceedings whose deadlines would otherwise expire between July 10th and August 8th would also be extended as follows:
- release deadline for juvenile taken into custody while awaiting dependency proceedings – seven days;
- deadline for detention hearing to be held after juvenile taken into custody – seven days;
- deadline for detention hearing to be held after juvenile taken into custody for felony offense while awaiting wardship proceedings – seven days;
- hearing on a petition for juvenile dependency to be held – fifteen days; and
- hearing on a petition for wardship to be held for juvenile charged with a felony – fifteen days.
Mayor Threatens Another Mandatory Shut-Down
On July 19th, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti warned the public that if the pandemic continues to spread in the county at its current rate, he would have no choice but to order another mandatory shelter-in-place edict. (Under California law, mayors are allowed to enact stricter emergency provisions than the governor to combat the pandemic. Conversely, they are prohibited from issuing less stringent orders.)
Thus, by late July, it appeared that another county-wide shutdown in the superior courts would be virtually inevitable, and that criminal proceedings – at the very least those involving essential and time-sensitive hearings – would likely involve remote technology. For example, as discussed below, several of Ninaz Saffari’s friends and former colleagues in the Public Defender’s Office had appeared at hearings via Webex, a video conferencing platform that appears to be similar to Zoom. See webex.com.
LA County Announces It Will Begin Using Remote Technology for Criminal Matters
On August 5, 2020, Sherri R. Carter, Executive Officer of the County Clerk’s Office, announced that – effective August 10th – all two hundred and fifty criminal courtrooms in Los Angeles County Superior Court would be utilizing Webex for remote audio and video hearings.
Prior to that, as discussed in Part One of this series, only thirty-two courtrooms used Webex and even then only for defendants who were incarcerated while awaiting their preliminary hearing and/or trial and who chose to appear via this relatively new technology.
Now, however, it appears that all defendants – including those not in custody – will have the option of appearing remotely, although that will be up to the individual judge in each specific courtroom. In other words, each judicial officer has the discretion whether to allow Webex for any particular criminal proceeding.
However, in order to appear remotely, defense counsel (private attorneys and those in the Public Defender’s Office and Alternate Public Defender’s Office) must first make a request to the particular judge and, if granted, will receive a Webex link.
The following Superior Courthouses will now include Webex technology (in alphabetical order):
- Antelope Valley (Michael Antonovich Courthouse)
- DTLA Central Arraignment Court
- DTLA Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center
- DTLA Metro
- East LA
- El Monte
- Long Beach
- LAX Courthouse
- Pomona Courthouse South
- San Fernando
- Santa Clarita
- Van Nuys Courthouse West
- West Covina
LA County Shows Signs of (Again) Flattening the COVID-19 Transmission Rate
On August 13, 2020, the Los Angeles Times reported that as of that day, six weeks after California partially shut down again, the state – and most particularly LA County – were seeing a downward trend in new COVID-19 infections. In fact, according to the article, the county’s decline in the county’s transmission rate was significantly improved over the rest of the state.
Please keep in mind that all of the foregoing information is subject to change at any moment as a result of the ever-changing nature of the coronavirus’ spread.
Q&A with Ninaz Saffari re LA County’s Criminal Justice System During the Pandemic:
When and how did you first notice the affect of the shutdown on the county’s criminal justice system?
Right after Judge Brazile’s announcement is early March that four hundred courtrooms were shutting down. At that time, I began receiving calls from new clients and potential new clients who informed me that their arraignments were being scheduled as far out as August. In the fifteen years I’ve been practicing, nothing like this has ever happened.
Have you had any issues or problems visiting clients in jail?
Surprisingly, no – there have been no problems with attorneys visiting their clients, but no one else – including family members – have been allowed to visit since March. This continues to this day so it’s been particularly difficult for my clients who have families. And even many of the courtrooms I’ve appeared in since March have banned everyone except attorneys in the courtroom.
What are some of the major changes you’ve witnessed in the court system since March?
Many courtrooms have consolidated their calendars into a single courtroom so that a particular judge and his or her clerk can rotate into a certain courtroom to handle their caseload one week, while the next week a different judge and clerk take over. The same thing has been happening with deputy public defenders – some of my friends in the PD’s Office have been working one week in a courtroom then working from home the other week.
Also, many of the individual clerk’s offices, such as at the LAX Courthouse, will still see people by appointment only, and are otherwise closed to the general public.
In addition, for the first time ever – at least as far as I am aware – attorneys have been able to appear in court on felony cases without having their clients present. This occurs after the particular defendant signs what’s called a “977 waiver” (for California Penal Code section 977(a)). The judge has to approve each request, of course, but most of them have been approving these waivers.
This has greatly reduced the transportation of inmates from jails to the courthouses, as well as the traffic in the courtrooms.
Were any of your clients released from jail as a result of COVID-19 measures?
No, because all of my clients who were incarcerated at the time when the emergency zero-bail schedule was enacted were awaiting trial for crimes of violence or sex offenses. But I am aware that many people in jail have had their bail readjusted so that all defendants charged with non-violent crimes have been released. Also, many attorneys have been filing motions for new bail hearings as a result of this emergency schedule.
Have all of your previously pending trials been postponed?
Yes, the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court has repeatedly postponed trials 30 days at a time, and the Presiding Judge for LA County has followed that order by doing the same.
Have you made any appearances thus far using remote video technology?
No, not personally yet, but a lot of my friends in the PD’s Office have been appearing remotely and they tell me it’s been working really well.
What, if anything, have you heard from your incarcerated clients as to how the pandemic is affecting the jail populations in LA County?
I can tell you that my incarcerated clients are missing the sheriff’s bus that transports them to their court appearances more often than before the pandemic. I think the sheriff’s department is limiting the number of defendants who board the bus because of social distancing. While it obviously creates a big headache for my clients and myself, it’s still a good idea because of the pandemic.
With the reopening of the courts at the end of June, have you noticed a backlog in criminal cases as far as hearings and other proceedings?
Yes, even though the courtrooms have reopened, the judges have been very strict in keeping their daily schedules light so, therefore, not many cases have been adjudicated. But I’ve heard quite a few clerks and assistant D.A.s complain that the backlog is really building up because of these light calendars so we’ll see what kind of effect this has in the long term.
Do you have any predictions or expectations as to how the introduction of Webex will affect your client’s hearings in the near future?
By the end of July, it did seem like the mayor was going to order another shutdown of all non-essential businesses in Los Angeles, and while that excludes the courts, I was confident that the courts would close down as well. However, now that it appears we are once again flattening the curve of the pandemic in the county, and with the August 5th announcement by the County Clerk, it seems that the courts will continue to operate with a combination of remote technology and in-person hearings. And although the zero bail schedule hasn’t changed, the promise-to-appear summons being issued are now for arraignments in the very near future, instead of three months down the road like before.
Since the Judicial Council of California recently revoked their zero-bail schedule, do you think LA County will follow suit, particularly in light of the fact that the county now seems to be flattening the curve (again) for new infections?
If the current trend continues to the point where the spread becomes manageable in the county jails, I do think the schedule will be rescinded, but right now it’s impossible to even guess when that might happen. Unfortunately, at least until recently, the virus has swept through the jails like a brush fire.
My incarcerated clients have told me that entire tiers have been infected, and many individuals have been quarantined within the jail simply because they were exposed. Sadly, more than a few of my clients have tested positive in jail and showed symptoms.
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