After shelter order, Bay Area courts condense more
After a sweeping Bay Area-wide shelter-in-place order was issued Monday by the region’s publichealth officers to slow the rapid spread of coronavirus, county courts throughout the Bay Area announced they were further reducing services, save for a narrow segment of hearings that mostly involve public-safety matters.
In line with the multicounty order for people to stay home unless they are performing “essential” functions or tasks, the superior courts of Alameda and San Mateo counties announced more sweeping closures in their court system from Tuesday until at least April 7.
Additionally, jail visitation has been drastically reduced or suspended altogether throughout the Bay Area. Tuesday, Santa Clara County announced a moratorium on jail visits, and that inmates would be “gifted” two five-minute calls per week during the duration of the sheltering order. In Contra Costa County, the Sheriff’s Office has suspended most visitors to the county’s jail facilities; attorneys will still be allowed to have noncontact visits with their clients.
A letter sent to an array of Santa Clara County officials from the Coalition of Justice and Accountability — an alliance of South Bay civil-rights groups — renewed calls echoed across the country for aggressive efforts to reduce jail populations through measures like postponing jail sentences for out-of-custody defendants, easing enforcement on non-violent offenses and probation violations, and granting early releases to elderly or infirm inmates and those in the final months of their jail sentences.
For those still in jail, the coalition wants authorities and officials to offer accommodations including making video call and phone services free for the duration of the sheltering order; eliminating markups and transaction fees for commissary purchases; and improving communication avenues for families of inmates so they can be up to date on their conditions.
Legal experts and defense attorneys have argued that besides extended jail stays and case delays that infringe on defendants’ due process rights, the court slowdowns are keeping defendants in a jail environment that had acute health risks that are now compounded by COVID-19.
Last week, two Santa Clara County jail inmates were placed into quarantine after a jail visitor who interviewed them tested positive for the virus. This news organization, citing multiple sources, confirmed it was an attorney with the county public defender’s office. Then Monday, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith said two more inmates were isolated as a precaution because they were the recipients of mail from the same person, though Smith said their exposure risks were more remote. She added that none of the quarantined inmates have exhibited symptoms of COVID-19.
Back at the courtrooms, Santa Clara County has excused jury duty requirements for those called up during the three-week shelter order, and is keeping some courtrooms open for criminal felony, misdemeanor, domestic violence and family violence arraignments, and preliminary hearings where a defendant invoked their right to a speedy trial. Other cases still being heard involved domestic-violence restraining orders, juvenile dependency detentions, emergency mental health reviews, civil harassment restraining orders, select conservatorship matters, and juvenile detentions.
In San Mateo County, the Superior Court announced Monday that it obtained an emergency order from California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye authorizing the Peninsula courts to suspend all trials for up to 30 days, and that court hearings encompassing civil, small claims, traffic, family law and probate matters be continued or rescheduled. Criminal cases are also ordered postponed except in cases where a defendant invoked their right to a speedy trial.