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San Diego Courts Deploy Tech to Conduct Some Business Now

The San Diego Superior Court has taken a step toward conducting proceedings during the COVID-19 crisis, holding a six-minute hearing via a video hookup that allowed lawyers seated at their office desks blocks away to participate.

by Greg Moran, The San Diego Union-Tribune / April 7, 2020
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(TNS) — The San Diego Superior Court on Monday took the first step toward conducting proceedings during the COVID-19 crisis, holding a six-minute hearing via a video hookup that allowed lawyers seated at their office desks blocks away to speak to a courtroom sprinkled with socially-distanced and masked court workers.

The scene involving the case of People v. Ryan Patrick Constantine was unique, but will become more common in the coming days as the court begins to process a backlog of criminal cases built up since the court severely pared operations because of the pandemic on March 17.

While Constantine's case was the only one heard under the new format, some 16 cases are set to be heard on Tuesday, said Presiding Judge Lorna Alksne.

She also said that the court plans to expand the video hearings, which are allowed under emergency state court rules approved by the Judicial Council for the coronavirus emergency, in each of the court branch courthouses around the county starting later this week.

Doing so allows the court to begin to hack away at a backlog of criminal cases built up while the court's operations have been narrowed. Since mid-March the courts have been closed to the public, open only for a handful of emergency proceedings, and all criminal matters such as arraignments and preliminary examinations were suspended.

Even with the closure extended through April, court officials want to move cases that have legal deadlines so as not to create a large bottleneck when the courts reopen. Moreover, holding hearings allows cases to resolve by a plea agreement or some other method, and that in turn could lower the jail population — an urgent focus for many concerned about lethal epidemics breaking out in jails and prisons endangering inmates and staff.

Constantine's hearing was short and uneventful. He has been in jail since Feb. 22 on a vandalism charge and for another case from East County, details of which were not immediately available.

He was seated in a room at the downtown jail where he could see the courtroom and communicate with his lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Matthew Wechter. In the courtroom, Wechter appeared in one portion of a large television screen, with Deputy District Attorney David Grapilon appearing in another portion of the screen.

Both lawyers called in from their respective offices, Wechter wearing a latex glove on one hand.

In California, a defendant has the right to be physically present during hearings, so Alksne first asked Constantine to waive that right, which he did. Wechter then requested a mental competency exam for his client, which was granted, suspending all criminal proceedings in the case until April 24.

The hearing took all of six minutes. After it ended, Alksne said a similar video setup would be used for arraignments and preliminary hearings, with witnesses testifying via a remote connection. She said the courts are trying to process cases and be mindful of public health orders to keep gatherings to fewer than 10 people, and maintain social distance.

At one point she pulled out a six-foot long wood pole, which she said was given to her last week as a present by court workers. It will be used to gauge distance — six feet is the minimum social distance required — among people in the courtroom, she said.

Reducing the number of people in jails, where the virus can breed and rapidly spread among a confined population that can't practice social distancing, has become a large concern for court and law enforcement officials. Later Monday, the state Judicial Council approved an emergency bail schedule for all courts in the state that reduces bail to $0 for nearly all misdemeanors and many low-level felonies.

Some charges such as domestic violence, driving under the influence, sex crimes that require registration as a sex offender if found guilty, and all serious and violent felonies are not covered by the new schedule. Court will have to adopt the new schedule by Monday.

San Diego revised its bail schedule for 57 misdemeanors and low level felonies last Thursday. Combined with another court order allowing for the accelerated release of people with fewer than two months left on their sentences, the San Diego jail population fell by 307, from 4,783 Friday to 4,476 Monday.

The Judicial Council also approved a rule that courts use technology to do remote appearances in criminal cases. The council kept the requirement that defendants have to consent to do so, despite written objections from many prosecutors around the state.

San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan was one of those who objected, writing that a defendant who did not consent would force law enforcement to transport the person to court, exposing deputies and court workers to someone who may be infected.

The council approved the new rule retaining the consent provision and referencing a different emergency rule allowing attorneys to waive the physical presence of their client for a proceeding.

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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