An emergency order giving local courts more time to hold key hearings for criminal defendants has been approved by state court officials during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Judicial Council of California, during an emergency meeting on Saturday, agreed to temporary measures that will extend from 48 hours to seven days the deadline for arraignments, when defendants are informed of the charges they are facing and given the chance to enter a plea. And the deadline will go from from 10 court days to 30 court days for preliminary hearings, when a judge decides whether there is enough evidence for a criminal case to proceed to trial.
The clock starts ticking when a charge is filed against a defendant, who can request a delay of the arraignment or the preliminary hearing.
The order also extends the time period to hold a criminal trial by more than 30 days. The judicial council, which unanimously approved the order, serves as the rule-making body for the California court system, setting policy guidance for local courts across the state.
“Together we must play our part in ‘flattening the curve’ for our state and nation as this pandemic evolves,” Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement. “But we also must preserve the rule of law, to protect the rights and liberties of all Californians, as all state government strives to protect their health and well-being.”
It isn’t clear if the order will result in delays to the majority of arraignments and preliminary hearings, or if it will be used selectively. The deadlines, which generally serve to guarantee a defendant’s timely access to court proceedings, are set by state law.
The ongoing closures of the state’s courts have already suspended jury trials. Local courts – including those in Orange, Riverside, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties – are largely focusing on emergency and time-sensitive hearings, leaning heavily on technology so the parties can avoid gathering in the same courtroom.
On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order bolstering the state judicial council’s ability to take action to deal with the pandemic, giving the judicial panel discretion to “make any modifications to legal practice and procedure it deems necessary in order to continue conducting business.”