Courts suspend trials, postpone misdemeanor hearings during COVID-19 outbreak

In an unprecedented order, California’s chief justice on Monday suspended all superior court jury trials for 60 days because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“The world, country, and state face a life-threatening pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus,” Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye said in her order, which impacts all 58 superior courts.

Local courts can, however, choose to conduct some business—just not most trials.

For instance, Los Angeles County courts—including the one in Downtown Long Beach—will continue with limited hearings such as arraignments and sentencings, but the public will be barred from the courthouse.

Only judges, commissioners, court staff, news reporters and other authorized persons will be allowed in until further notice, according to an order from the local presiding judge, Kevin C. Brazile.

Any misdemeanor cases with out-of-custody defendants will be postponed for 90 days unless the hearing is required by law.

One type of proceeding that will continue, and become a priority, are bail hearings to possibly release more inmates from lockups where the spread of the coronavirus has been a concern.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey has asked that prosecutors consider a defendant’s risk of being exposed to COVID-19 when seeking a bail amount.

With thousands of cases being handled each year, Lacey told the Los Angeles Times that her office will focus on prosecuting violent felons.

“It’s inevitable that some cases are going to be lost. They’re going to be dismissed, not filed, because we’re going to have to prioritize, right?” Lacey told the paper. “You’ll see prosecutors looking to settle cases more because we just can’t accept this volume that we’re looking at … but I think the important cases won’t be lost.”

The courts decided to change their operations despite being considered essential services that are exempt from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order that shut many government offices as well as most commercial businesses.

But the social distancing procedures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus—such as limiting gatherings—are difficult under usual court conditions, Cantil-Sakauye said.

“Court proceedings require gatherings of court staff, litigants, attorneys, witnesses, and juries, well in excess of the numbers allowed for gathering under current executive and health orders,” she said in her order.

Even if the courts could meet the requirements, school closures mean that many court employees and others can’t make court because they are watching their children, the chief justice said.

“These restrictions have also made it nearly impossible for courts to assemble juries,” she said.

Under her order, all civil and criminal jury trials will be suspended for 60 days unless there is “good cause shown” for an earlier trial. Trials also may be held via remote technology when appropriate.

“A suspension of a right, such as the right to a speedy trial, can only be delayed by good cause,” Peter Allen, a court system spokesman, said in an email. “The chief justice is basically saying the pandemic itself is good cause unless a local judge finds good cause not to follow this order based on local circumstances.”

The courts also are allowed to adopt any rules immediately to address the impact of the virus.

Courts around the state already were struggling to handle the risks of the coronavirus, with some suspending trials for a month and others shutting down completely.

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