Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer Tuesday called on the governor and chief justice of the state Supreme Court to give court officials more flexibility with preliminary hearings in an effort to comply with social distancing efforts to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
Orange County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kirk Nakamura issued a memo on Tuesday in response to new recommendations from Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye regarding efforts to cut down hearings in the state’s courthouses to the most necessary.
Nakamura criticizes Spitzer and Orange County Public Defender Sharon Petrosino in the memo.
“Despite criticism from the Orange County district attorney and public defender, who, along with other justice partners, have always been consulted with the court’s plans, the court will continue to provide justice consistent with the conditions that exist and the recommendations of (the chief justice),” Nakamura wrote in the memo.
Spitzer brushed off the criticism, saying he understands the frustration with balancing the constitutional rights of defendants and protecting the public.
However, Spitzer noted there’s only so much the chief justice can do to give court officials a break on some hearings, particularly some preliminary hearings when prosecutors must persuade a judge they have enough evidence to go forward with a trial.
Cantil-Sakauye gave court officials across the state to put off trials for 60 days.
Spitzer called on the chief justice or governor to extend the same flexibility on preliminary hearings..
“I’m calling on the chief justice to urge the governor to issue an executive order that will give us some relief on these time restraints with respect to preliminary hearings,” Spitzer said.
“If the governor has certain emergency powers, with respect to the courts he needs to exercise them or he’s jeopardizing public safety. (Cantil-Sakauye) has done about all she can do under present law, and I think that’s why the courts are so frustrated.”
Last week, court officials opened the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana to hold hearings for cases assigned to outlying courthouses in Fullerton, Newport Beach and Westminster.
Numerous defense attorneys decried large masses of people in small courtrooms in violation of orders to keep people 6 feet apart to cut down on the spread of the highly contagious virus.
“There was an uncoordinated transfer of prisoners from the county jail, so it violated every social separation protocol, and so there were a lot of attorneys who were very frustrated,” Spitzer said.
Spitzer has told his employees they do not have to work a courtroom if they feel uncomfortable with the health conditions, and he said he has given them permission to express their concerns to the sitting judge and to walk out if they feel at risk.
“It didn’t go as smoothly as they wanted it to go, but I think they moved too fast,” last week, Spitzer said.
“They made certain representations how things would work and when those protective measures like video equipment was in place they should have stopped, and instead they proceeded to go forward.”
Spitzer, Petrosino and court officials will have another meeting Wednesday morning to discuss the new memo and attempts to cut down on hearings going forward.
“We’re muddling through (hearings) this week, but next week there will be an avalanche,” Spitzer said. “We’ve already been told we don’t have enough courtrooms to handle the preliminary hearings.”
Spitzer said part of the tension stems from his unwillingness to “agree to certain things I won’t agree to. They want me to agree to early release of inmates.”
But Spitzer pointed out the jails have 1,100 available beds.
“I have not seen any evidence we need to let people out, and we are certainly controlling the people going in” to make sure they’re free of the virus, Spitzer said.
“It is not an appropriate option for our county at this time,” Spitzer said. “We don’t have overcrowding. If we had an outbreak in the jail or the threat of an outbreak and could not keep distance between the inmates then we could have that discussion.”
Spitzer said Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes has “absolute unilateral authority to do early release for overcrowding in emergency situations and other options.”
Spitzer suggested that inmates who have 60 days left to serve, who officials have argued should be released now, could do the rest of their time under house arrest.
“They should be home anyway,” he said. “Why not put them on bracelets. Why wouldn’t we want to know they’re home and being monitored?”
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