The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to impose stronger health and safety measures in county courthouses, where public defenders have objected to what they contend are unsafe conditions.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl proposed that the county’s chief executive officer collaborate with the Public Defender’s Office, Sheriff Alex Villanueva and other county agencies, including health departments, to develop recommendations on a pre-screening process for entering courthouses — including temperature checks and exposure questions — along with other safety measures.
“Enhancing our existing health and safety measures is critical — not only to slow the spread of COVID-19, but also to protect the constitutional and human rights of everyone entering our courthouses, including jurors, counsel and defendants,” Ridley-Thomas said. “Affording due process should not unnecessarily expose individuals attending mandatory court procedures to serious health risks — especially when those risks can be avoided or mitigated.”
The motion also suggested hourly patrols to ensure compliance with masking and social distancing protocols and public health inspections of lockup spaces in all of the county’s courthouses.
Recommendations — which are set to be brought before the board in two weeks — are also being sought on the feasibility of rapid testing for jail inmates, testing of jurors and expanding video conferencing technology to allow jail inmates access to attorneys, the courts and clinicians.
The board is also seeking protocols for responding to a known positive COVID-19 test from any individual who has been in a courthouse.
The Sheriff’s Department notified the Public Defender’s Office that many of its attorneys may have been exposed to COVID-19 by clients who tested positive for the virus while in jail, according to the motion. In May, a Los Angeles County deputy public defender who had worked in the West Covina branch office died a few days after testing positive for COVID-19.
Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME, the public defenders’ union, told the board that the issue needed urgent attention and that steps needed to be taken to ensure that everyone is following the public guidelines.
Public Defender Ricardo Garcia said defense attorneys should be counted among the county’s front line workers.
“Public defenders are on the front line of Los Angeles County’s justice system, and it is now in the era of (COVID-19) that our calling as constitutional warriors is on full display,” Garcia said.
Jury trials have been on hold in Los Angeles County since mid-March as a result of the pandemic.
The court system’s presiding judge, Kevin C. Brazile, ordered the courts to substantially scale back their operations to comply with state and county public health directives to try to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The court’s latest emergency order requires everyone to wear face coverings over their nose and mouth while they are in a courthouse and limits access to those who can be accommodated in courtrooms while enforcing social distancing.