Court in (modified) session: Nevada County Superior Court set to return to Truckee with change in approach
The coronavirus pandemic slowed the pace of American life. Weddings have been postponed, job offers suspended and divorce court proceedings delayed.
This Monday, June 1, the cogs of justice will begin to turn once again, carrying the weight of two-and-a-half months worth of backlogged cases. Like many institutions reopening their doors during Phase 2, the Truckee branch of Nevada County’s Superior Court will operate differently.
Since judicial operations halted mid-March, Nevada County Superior Court Judge Robert Tamietti and his team reconfigured Truckee’s two courtrooms to adhere to the social distancing guidelines recommended by the state. The court’s new safety measures include mandating masks inside, limiting the number of people in the room and rearranged seating.
Tamietti said he and his staff’s on-site skeleton crew took cues from local grocery stores and taped the floor every six feet. Seating for the court’s audience was reduced from 66 to 25 chairs.
Tamietti said the limited seating will affect pretrial proceedings, including traffic violations which make up the bulk of the courthouse’s foot traffic and revenue.
“Our biggest calendar is the traffic calendar,” Tamietti said. “We’ve got a traffic arraignment date, where you determine if you’ll take the fine or go to traffic school, scheduled in late June with 400 people.”
Tamietti said court attendees will wait in their car prior to arraignment going forward, a modification to the in-take process he believes is more than reasonable — weather-permitting.
The new protocol is meant to protect everyone who enters the courthouse, Tamietti explained, but he especially hopes the measures allay the fears of potential jurors and help them embrace their civic duty.
“I want to reassure the community that when they start to receive the jury summons we’re not going to sardine them,” Tamietti said.
In Department A, Truckee’s main courtroom, the jury’s chairs were unbolted and replaced by freestanding seats spaced in accordance with state recommendations. Three of the jury’s seats are now located outside of their designated box, just in front of the rail, Tamietti said.
Truckee criminal defense attorney Alison Bermant said the jury’s physical position definitely influences courtroom dynamics.
“Lawyers have to be mindful of all parties’ locations while delivering statements,” Bermant said, adding that she would never agree to participate in a criminal court case online, like in New York.
“How can you judge a witness testimony over Zoom? Anyone who has done a Zoom call knows,” Bermant said. “Even having a Zoom cocktail hour with my girlfriends, you just don’t get the same facial expressions to gauge someone’s credibility that well.”
Bermant said taking criminal cases online and cross examining witnesses over a video conference violates due process.
“In a courtroom a jury can see if a person can make eye contact,” Bermant said. “There’s nonverbal communication that takes place when testifying in the courtroom.”
Nevada County will also move two-thirds of the jury selection process online to alleviate court crowding. The three tiers of the jury selection process are hardship, for cause and peremptory challenge, he explained. The first two illuminate potential jurors’ prior commitments and past experiences that may conflict with their ability to be unbiased.
“We’re trying to do hardship and the first level of ‘for cause’ impersonally,” Tamietti said. “Do you have a doctor’s appointment? Do you know the people involved in the case?”
Jurors play an integral role in Americans’ Sixth Amendment rights. Rights that also, under normal circumstances, ensure a criminal defendant’s access to a timely trial.
Tamietti said a defendant is entitled to a trial within 60 days of pleading “not guilty” to a felony. If the defendant faces a misdemeanor charge, they are entitled to a trial within 30 days. In March, and again in April, California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye issued emergency orders that extended the deadline for state superior courts to hold criminal trials by a total of 90 days.
‘THE WORK HAS NOT STOPPED’
Since the onset of the pandemic, Tamietti’s legal action is limited to emergencies — issuing domestic violence-related restraining orders and arraigning new arrestees.
The recently arraigned may take comfort in California’s Emergency Bail Schedule, which eliminates bail for all misdemeanor and low-level felony offenses, but the accused may end up in a legal battle that extends into 2021, Tamietti said.
“I am booked solid with criminal trials from July 22 to the first of the new year,” Tamietti said.
Tamietti, who has served Truckee for 17 years, said a number of those cases will “crater” before they reach his courtroom via plea bargains or the prosecution’s dismissal. Even so, his schedule is packed.
“The work has not stopped,” Truckee public defender Bruce Kapsack said. “People are still getting arrested.”
Once the protocol is rolled out, Tamietti and his skeleton crew will tackle pretrials on Mondays and Tuesdays and jury trials on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
No one in the courthouse has been furloughed but 50% of Tamietti’s team is working from home.
“That’s basically so if someone gets exposed the other 50% can still work for them,” Tamietti said.
Kapsack said the court’s backlog is overwhelming, and playing catch up will be stressful for everyone involved in Truckee’s judicial system.
“Right now my workload is pretty light but down the road I’m going to see three or four times as many cases a day,” he said. “The court here in Truckee is one district attorney, one judge and me. We handle one-fourth of cases in the county but we have one-eighth of the resources.”
Kapsack believes one of his clients currently awaiting trial in the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility will likely be found innocent when the case proceeds in July.
“I know one person in custody right now who at a trial would probably win,” Kapsack said.
Bermant said courts already get a low response rate from potential jurors, but their service is needed more than ever.
“Do your civic duty,” Bermant said. “If you’re an innocent person that’s charged with a crime and the government won’t let it go, the only people that can save you is the jury.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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