A judge's gavel. Photo via Pixabay.
A judge's gavel. Photo via Pixabay.

Riverside County prosecutors are scrambling to re-file complaints and submit motions challenging judges’ decisions to dismiss hundreds of criminal cases countywide, in what District Attorney Mike Hestrin said Monday is fast becoming a “public safety crisis.”

According to the District Attorney’s Office, judges have booted just over 500 felony and misdemeanor cases since the second week of October, citing a lack of available courtroom space for trials. Most of the cases were added to dockets during the COVID public health lockdowns, when courts suspended many operations under emergency orders from the California Office of the Chief Justice.

A backlog of roughly 2,800 cases developed. The chief justice’s orders expired on Oct. 7.

“The dismissal of cases and thus allowing criminals back into our community with no consequences for their actions is a danger to everyone,” Hestrin said. “The consequences of the decisions being made from our judges is going to cause extreme harm to victims of crime and our community at-large. This is a public safety crisis, and it needs to stop.”

Felony cases that judges have unilaterally disposed of include those of Steven James Flores and Paul Phillip Powers. In the Flores matter, which originated in the Coachella Valley, he was charged with attempted murder, assault on a peace officer, firearm assault and robbery. In the Powers case, from the Riverside area, he was charged with a hate crime and multiple acts of vandalism.

Prosecutors are re-filing charges against both men, effectively restarting the clock, going back to arraignment. In other matters, prosecutors have filed appeals to have cases reinstated.

“These are cases in which our office has witnesses gathered and has announced that we are ready to begin jury trial,” according to the D.A.’s office. “However, the Superior Court does not have a judge available to hear the case so, rather than granting a short continuance until a trial courtroom becomes available, judges have chosen to dismiss criminal cases and release the accused perpetrators back into the community.”

The majority of cases being dismissed stem from alleged acts of domestic violence.

“When a judge dismisses a domestic violence case, they also terminate the victim’s criminal protective order. This is nothing less than an injustice and a disservice to the victims and to public safety,” Hestrin said.

The state constitution entitles defendants to receive a speedy disposition of their cases at trial.

Superior Court Presiding Judge John Monterosso released a statement on Oct. 25 acknowledging the court system was bearing a heavy load, traced to the lockdowns and consequent changes in court operations.

“I share others’ frustration when a case is not resolved on the merits, or due process is impaired, due to a lack of available judicial resources,” Monterosso said. “The genesis of the current set of circumstances is the chronic and generational lack of judges allocated to serve Riverside County.”

He emphasized that the county has 90 authorized and funded judicial positions, but a 2020 Judicial Needs Assessment Study noted that 115 judicial officers are needed to ensure efficient operations throughout the local court system and prevent logjams.

“The dispensing of statutory timelines for criminal trials under the emergency orders delayed the `day in court’ for numerous criminal defendants and those impacted by the alleged crimes,” Monterosso said. “While the law allows a court to continue a case beyond the statutory deadline for `good cause,’ the decision on whether `good cause’ exists is an individualized decision made by the trial judge based on the law and the facts of the case.”

Hestrin questioned the legitimacy of basing dismissals on a deficit of judicial resources, given that “this has been the case as far back as anyone can remember.”

Monterosso said judges are redoubling efforts to accommodate trial requests, often times summoning prospective jurors for screening late on weekdays to courtrooms where juries in other matters are still deliberating.

However, Hestrin said last month, 500 prospective jurors slated to be assigned courtrooms were sent home, with judges refusing to entertain requests for “brief” postponements until courtrooms became available.

“If we have an emergency in our courts that justifies a dismissal of a felony, then it should be an emergency in every courtroom across the county and should justify an all-hands-on-deck approach to trying cases,” the county’s top prosecutor said.

The current backlog is reminiscent of the cumulative impact of a buildup of unresolved criminal cases in 2007 that prompted the state to dispatch a “judicial strike team” to the county to help sort through criminal cases clogging the court system.

At the time, the Superior Court virtually halted civil jury trials for months while judges focused on reducing the strain on resources. An empty elementary school was even converted into a makeshift courthouse.

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