Trials across California have been shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but plenty of day-to-day business is still going on in Los Angeles County courthouses, and attorneys say it’s making them fear for their safety.
To underscore the seriousness of their concerns, two sides who are usually at odds have joined forces. Public defenders and prosecutors on Wednesday both called for the entire Los Angeles County Superior Court system to be closed for everything but the most urgent business until uniform rules can be put in place to enforce social distancing and produce sanitary conditions.
Many court services are already on hold, including in-person clerks’ windows and any misdemeanor arraignments with out-of-custody defendants, but the unions that represent public defenders, deputy district attorneys and L.A. City prosecutors say that’s not enough.
For now, courts are “the weakest link in the government’s response to the coronavirus and will remain so until the court can consistently implement more effective containment measures in every courthouse,” they said in a joint statement calling for video conferencing and telecommuting instead of in-person hearings.
For now, courts are scrambling to try to abide by a complicated web of local and statewide orders meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 while keeping courts operating as much as possible.
But in private conversations, attorneys have been frustrated with the ever-changing rules and uneven enforcement by individual judges.
“We keep kind of Band-Aiding the problem,” according to one attorney, who asked not to be named to avoid upsetting judges.
Outside some courtrooms, the attorney said, witnesses are stacking up by the dozens while waiting for hearings. Inside, inmates are still arriving in groups, handcuffed and chained together, making it impossible for them to wash their hands or keep their distance from others.
“It’s just so bad,” he said.
Defense attorneys say they’re afraid to go into jails to speak with their clients, making it impossible to adequately represent them. And prosecutors are complaining daily about unsanitary and unsafe court houses across the county, according to Michele Hanisee, president of the union that represents deputy district attorneys.
By contrast, Orange County courts have already closed for most non-emergency matters and started livestreaming proceedings.
If L.A. County courts don’t shut down preemptively, lawyers worry the closures would be inevitable when people start to get sick.
At least one public defender has already contracted COVID-19, prompting quarantines for some staff and a three-day shutdown at the Sylmar courthouse where the lawyer worked.
The calls for a shutdown come as the courts and attorneys attempt to prioritize bail hearings and other proceedings that could reduce the number of people in local jails in hopes of keeping COVID-19 from spreading behind bars.
Already, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has released at least 1,7000 inmates, and the Long Beach Police Department has urged officers to cite and release suspects for certain misdemeanors instead of arresting them.