The coronavirus pandemic and its associated illness, COVID-19, has substantially disrupted the operations of the Los Angeles County criminal courts. While every county has responded differently to the crisis, there is universal agreement that social distancing is a primary priority and that accordingly the typical operations of the courts must be modified if not curtailed entirely for a significant period of time.
This has several important impacts for criminal defendants and their family members, particularly those in custody pending trial or who have already been sentenced. This article explores some of the impacts of COVID-19 on the Los Angeles County criminal courts.
As always, the best source for up to date information about the developing crisis is the Los Angeles Superior Court website, as well as the websites of the relevant government health agencies who are responsible for addressing the outbreak.
For more information, see the Superior Court of California - COVID-19 News and Resource Center - Releases and Notices.
Continuance on Court Dates
Due to COVID-19, many court dates are simply being continued for long periods of time to avoid defendants and attorneys from having to appear in person in the usually crowded state courthouses.
For less serious cases, including misdemeanors and those cases which are on calendar for post-conviction progress reports, many judges are continuing court dates without any appearance being required.
Some judges will have the attorneys call in to the court's phone line and appear telephonically.
In other cases, defense attorneys are simply being notified of a new court date by the judicial assistant to the judge without any input from the parties.
Felony Cases in Los Angeles County Courts
Felony cases present a somewhat more challenging issue as California law requires a felony defendant to appear in person in almost every case.
The California Supreme Court's Chief Judge has circulated a memorandum to judges citing cases and statutes under which he suggests it is permissible in many cases, considering the virus pandemic, for defendants to appear through their attorneys by means of a written waiver form.
This procedure – known as Penal Code Section 977 – is the norm in misdemeanor prosecutions. However, prior to the pandemic, this waiver of personal presence in felony cases was only rarely allowed.
Given the new reality, many judges are permitting most, if not all, felony defendants who provide a properly executed written waiver to appear through counsel rather than physically being present at the courthouse.
Again, this measure is designed to reduce the number of persons physically presence in close proximity in court. Combined with telephonic appearances, this approach allows for social distancing consistent with government health recommendations.
Defendants Who Are in Custody
Another substantial challenge is posed by defendants who are in custody pending trial. The county jail, while not yet subject to a significant viral outbreak at the time of this writing, is suspected to be a likely hotbed of infection given the generally substandard condition of many of the jail facilities combined with the realities of overcrowding.
Overcrowding in county jails was an issue of significant concern prior to the virus, but now appears to be a potential disaster. For that reason, the District Attorney's office is working with defense counsel and the courts to identify large categories of in-custody defendants who pose minimal risk to the public if released.
These defendants are being ordered to be released on their own recognizance, meaning their promise to return to court, rather than having to post bail.
In this way, the jail facilities are able to significantly reduce the population of non-violent inmates consistent with the necessity of social distancing.
Right to a Speedy Hearing
For both in-custody and out-of-custody defendants, the right to a speedy preliminary hearing or a speedy jury trial will likely be curtailed.
The practical reality is that even if courts were ordering jury pools at this time, which would be contrary to the best health advice, the likelihood that an adequate number of jurors would answer their summons is low.
It would be unfair to expect members of the public who are being told by the government to self-quarantine if at all possible to report to jury duty where they would be expected to sit in close quarters with dozens of strangers for hours or days on end while waiting to be placed on a jury.
Legally, this poses a significant problem as defendants in criminal cases have a statutory and constitutional right to a speedy trial and, in felony cases, to a speedy preliminary hearing.
The Chief Judge's emergency orders concerning COVID-19 include findings that these rights can be suspended for a relatively lengthy period of time in light of the evolving situation.
Even over a defendant's objection, therefore, at this time it appears that trial cases which would normally have to proceed or be subject to a defense motion to dismiss will be continued for at least a month without consequence.
Coronavirus Situation Rapidly Changes
The COVID-19 situation is rapidly evolving and the courts' response to it continues to change on a day-by-day basis with new emergency orders from presiding judges and individual trial courts being issued frequently.
Criminal defendants and their family members concerned with the impact of COVID-19 on their cases should contact their attorneys for an update on the operations in their particular jurisdiction.
Eisner Gorin LLP is a top-rated criminal defense law firm located at 1875 Century Park E #705, Los Angeles, CA 90067. Our main office is located in the San Fernando Valley next to the Van Nuys Superior Courthouse at 14401 Sylvan St #112 Van Nuys, CA 91401. Contact our office at (310) 328-3776.