Nevada County’s court system struggles to maintain services during COVID-19 shutdown
Special to the Sierra Sun
Tuesday morning was slated to be a busy court day, with the beginning of jury selection in a high-profile, two-defendant murder case scheduled to run through the end of April.
But instead, the courthouse was almost completely deserted, with most cases postponed for the foreseeable future as Nevada County’s criminal justice system struggles with COVID-19 protocols.
The trial of Sean Bryant and Michael McCauley — facing murder charges in connection with the death of veteran Stan Norman — had already been postponed once before, then was re-set for April 21 due to coronavirus concerns. But late Monday, an order issued by California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye suspending jury trials for 60 days threw even that date into doubt.
“At the moment, our trial date conflicts with the (new) order,” said David Brooks, Bryant’s attorney. “I assume that will be taken care of, but I don’t know when and I don’t know how.”
Brooks, who practices criminal law in several counties, said the orders issued by the state and by local courts have been conflicting in some cases and are causing confusion.
“It has been variable, from county to county, from judge to judge, from DA to DA, from case to case,” he said. “The policies haven’t been making a lot of sense. … Things are happening very fast, and courts are trying to get on top of it.”
As of last Friday, Nevada County Superior Court began instituting regulations intended to minimize court proceedings.
Civil and criminal jury trials, small claims trials, all traffic matters and all collaborative court hearings were postponed by the court until April 14. Some hearings still were being scheduled, including restraining orders and criminal preliminary hearings in which the defendants were not waiving their rights to have the hearing within a certain time. In-custody criminal arraignments, bail review hearings, mental competency hearings and no time waiver sentencings are being heard by video, unless a request is made to appear in court.
“All trials have been vacated. It’s too difficult to have a trial while complying with distancing guidelines,” said Court Executive Officer Jason Galkin. “Day-to-day criminal matters will continue as much as possible. What we’re trying to do is wind down to essential services and essential case types. The important part for people to know, those who aren’t regularly in the court, is that many items are vacated until April 14. We’re trying to make sure we minimize foot traffic into the building unless it’s absolutely necessary, and facilitate as much as possible by video or telephone, to maintain distancing protocols within courtrooms and the courthouse.”
“What you will see if you do come in, will be that clerks’ counters are closed, the doors are shut, with information posted on how to communicate,” he said. “There is still staff working, but the only thing we have for physical interaction, there is one window for things that require a physical exchange.”
Galkin encouraged members of the public to use online options where possible and said the courthouse has seen a “huge” reduction in foot traffic.
“It’s quieted down here and that’s a good thing,” he said.
Hearings by video
On Tuesday, just a handful of cases were being heard in a courtroom populated primarily by bailiffs, attorneys and the judge, with in-custody defendants appearing by video.
In two separate cases, after felonies were dismissed, Judge Scott Thomsen granted requests to release the defendants — with certain conditions — on their own recognizance.
In one case, the defendant appeared by phone, telling Thomsen he thought his hearing had been postponed. In another, a defendant complaining he wanted to come to court was granted a chance to talk to his attorney privately by video, with Thomsen clearing the courtroom.
Public Defender Keri Klein called the new restrictions “a work very much in progress,” adding, “Every day we’re trying to make it work better.”
“The reality is, we have to keep the courthouse open,” said Klein, citing both defendants’ rights and public safety issues.
Assistant District Attorney Chris Walsh agreed.
“It has been a process,” he said. “Certainly in the last week, there have been lots of adjustments.”
The District Attorney’s Office staff has been telecommuting as much as possible, with attorneys rotating to work inside the courthouse,
“Obviously, we’re trying to balance taking care of our work while trying to be socially responsible to try and curtail this public health crisis,” Walsh said.
With most court hearing dates in flux, local criminal defense attorney Jennifer Granger on Tuesday expressed concern over due process rights.
“I understand that judges have a grave responsibility to try and protect everyone working and using the courthouse in this public health emergency, and I know they are doing their best to follow public health recommendations and directives,” she said. “That being said, the jail population is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, since it is impossible for inmates to comply with social distancing requirements.”
Granger argued for the court to continue having evidentiary hearings, since those cases can be heard with court staff maintaining social distancing requirements. Postponing those hearings, Granger said, will just create further scheduling havoc and make it even more challenging for defendants to exercise their due process rights.
Galkin said the local court is now working to determine how best to implement the 60-day rule issued by the state.
“The order does allow for good cause to be found by the court for a jury trial to be held sooner than 60 days,” he said, adding that the order also allows for the possibility of using remote technology. “What does that mean and how does that apply locally? We’re still weighing what that means in the context of jury trials.”
For example, Galkin said, Nevada County’s judges are hashing out what “good cause” means.
“What cases fall into that description, necessitating a jury trial within that 60-day window?” he said. “Those internal discussions are going on as we speak.”
Bryant’s attorney, David Brooks, noted the state order provided no real guidance as to what constitutes good cause, but added, “There is no rational argument to say we ought to do (the murder trial) sooner.”
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.
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