For several tumultuous days this month, judges in charge of the Riverside and San Bernardino County courts struggled to quickly turn a system designed to be open to the public and run on a constitutional clock into a stripped-down version that could function minimally in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“My goal in approaching this crisis was to maximize the safety concerns of our staff and at the same time be able to handle the constitutional requirements of our community members who are incarcerated,” San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael Sachs said.

“And it’s a tough balancing act, to be honest with you.”

In Riverside County, Superior Court Presiding Judge John Vineyard said he sought “whatever we can (do) to minimize the number of people in our courthouses to the bare minimum.”

The court systems for both counties extend from their western metro regions, with downtown civil and criminal courts in Riverside and San Bernardino, to the desert edge of California —  with a courthouse in Needles for San Bernardino County and in Blythe for Riverside County. The courts serve a combined population of about 4.5 million.

Emergency minimums

Using emergency powers, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye  granted orders to close courthouses and limit functions to emergency minimums in both counties last week. On Monday, she suspended all jury trials for 60 days across the state.

The actions came as government officials issued a cascade of directives, including a stay-at-home order March 19 from Gov. Gavin Newsom, to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Courthouses normally are populated with jury assembly rooms, often-crowded courtrooms, and hallways that churn with people on court business, or to watch hearings. Busloads of inmates unload for court hearings and trials, and fill up again at the end of the court day.

What’s left now are arraignments for in-custody defendants, preliminary hearings, and hearings for emergency matters such as restraining orders and temporary guardianships.  Courtrooms that are open operate on short hours.

There’s minimum staff working for both systems, about 1,200 in Riverside County and just over 1,000 in San Bernardino County.

Public access has been closed, to comply with social distancing orders to avoid exposure to the novel coronavirus. News media can apply for coverage of hearings.

Video arraignments are being done in San Bernardino County courts, and Riverside County courts tested video arraignments this past week. . They are expected to begin  in the downtown Riverside Hall of Justice next week, with Southwest and Indio courts to follow soon.

Worst-case scenarios

The government code that the chief justice used “gives the court a lot of flexibility,” said Professor Laurie Levenson at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

It can extend from two court days to seven the time before a newly-charged defendant is arraigned; extend to 15 days from 10 days a criminal defendant’s right to a preliminary hearing after arraignment; and allows a trial’s start to be delayed for up to 30 days, with the cases of jailed defendants getting precedence over others to start trial, she noted.

“It’s a judicial emergency clause, and it’s for worst-case scenarios, like we are in right now,” Levenson said.  “When everything goes off the wheels, the court system has to adjust.” The statute, she said, tries to “instruct what is reasonable, even when you’re in an emergency.” Some of the biggest adjustments to the law were made in 1994, after the Northridge earthquake.

Also halted are hearings in traffic, small claims, and rent dispute courts.

“If you’ve ever been in those courtrooms, they are packed to the gills, from morning through most of the afternoon” Riverside County Presiding Judge Vineyard said.

Plans were in the works the week of March 9 to reduce the draw of those high-volume courts, as well as suspend civil jury trials to lessen juror pools — “hundreds of people, per courthouse, per day”  — as a way to decrease the number of people in courthouses, he said.

Trials delayed

Then came Gov. Newsom’s  Sunday, March 15 directive for seniors to self-isolate, and for social distancing at public places. Riverside County health officials also amended orders that weekend, Vineyard said

On Monday, March 16 the court decided to postpone the calendars of the high-volume courts, and suspend the start of scheduled criminal jury trials for 14 days and civil jury trials until May 25, Vineyard said. Those trial suspensions have since been superseded by Monday’s 60-day hold from Cantil-Sakauye.

“We were kind of triaging at that point,” Vineyard said. “We focused on our core essential functions.”

After getting most of the public out of the courthouses, “We have about 1,200 staff countywide, and we wanted to get as many of them home as soon as possible,” Vineyard said. He said about 80 staffers, who volunteered, continue to work, with a premium in their pay for doing so. The rest of the staff is on paid administrative leave, he said.

In San Bernardino County, Presiding Judge Sachs and his staff took similar measures and decided which courts would remain open. Barstow and Fontana heard traffic matters, unlawful detainers (rent disputes) and small claims. They were temporarily closed. “Some of the constitutional guarantees that are in place do not apply” to those types of cases, Sachs said.

So the downtown San Bernardino Justice Center and the Victorville court will handle emergency matters from those two shuttered venues for the duration.

Neither the Riverside nor the San Bernardino County closed their systems completely as they adjusted.

Sachs said San Bernardino County’s biggest challenge was Friday, March 20, when about 200 in-custody defendants were in courtrooms to see if they could resolve their cases before going to a preliminary hearing. That meant both prosecution and defense attorneys in court as well as court staff, along with the defendants.

“The challenge, of course, was all those people coming to court and trying to keep the social distancing requirement,” he said. Courtrooms that were not in session and had plexiglass to separate the defendants and their attorneys, plus the hallways outside the courtrooms, were used, Sachs said.

“By all accounts it worked pretty well, with about 30% of the cases resolved, and the rest were set for preliminary hearings,” he said.

In Riverside County, Public Defender Steve Harmon said his lawyers, who serve an estimated 85 percent of the county’s criminal case defendants, having been working through courtroom arraignments, and meeting with clients, while waiting for the system to switch to video.

“It’s been very difficult because we have had to balance social distancing and effective lawyering,” he said. “The courts have done a good job, in a very difficult situation, of getting the in-custody arrangement clients to court, in front of a judge, within the right time frame,” Harmon said.

“Video arraignment really becomes important for lawyers, court staff and for inmates,” Harmon said. It’s hard for inmates to be socially distanced “when they are chained together on a bus, go into a holding cell, and then are brought into a court room together,” he said.

“We continue to have arraignments daily, to date the order has not changed this,” Riverside County District Attorney spokesman John Hall said. “We are also working diligently with our criminal justice partners to implement video conferencing technology so that arraignments can continue while we also minimize in-person interaction to prevent any unnecessary exposures.”

One major case in Riverside County was continued because of the changes — the capital murder case of Brandon Willie Martin, a former Corona Santiago High School baseball star who played in the Tampa Bay Rays farm system. He is charged with the 2015 baseball-bat beating deaths of his father, his uncle and a security system installer in Corona.

Mike Bires, a spokesman for San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson, said Friday he knew of no major cases affected by the changes ordered in the past two weeks.

Jury selection was stopped on March 16 and continued to April 27. Under the latest order from Cantil-Sakauye, another date will have to be found.



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