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Northern California court proceedings move on after ruling, but coronavirus case spike slows reopening

Responding to a challenge filed in Contra Costa County Superior Court that impacts all California jurisdictions, a state appeals court ruled last week that preliminary hearings must proceed as legally bound.

The ruling has little effect on the operations of the courts in North Bay counties, which have taken recent steps to reopen more services. However, because of a recent rise in COVID-19 metrics in some counties, state and local health officials have rolled back or delayed some reopenings.

The law requires these court proceedings to be heard within 10 days of arraignments in felony cases or when a not guilty plea is made.

Determining if the evidence warrants a case go to trial, the proceedings continue to be scheduled in courthouses in Sonoma and Napa counties. Marin County has heard preliminary hearings via videoconferencing but not in person, according to a clerk.

The question of the timeline’s validity arose with California when chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye cited the COVID-19 crisis in closing state courts in mid-March, extending that deadline twice.

Since then, courts have grappled with how many services to open. Napa courts have reinstated all services and calendar items, Superior Court CEO Bob Fleshman told the Business Journal.

“We’ve deployed the option for remote hearings in all nine courtrooms,” he said.

Prior to the June 26 operational change, five courtrooms had been reopened since June 1. The Napa county court system also “staggered the cattle calls to meter the traffic flows,” he added.

With the preliminary hearing timeline challenge, a defendant facing pimping and human trafficking charges claimed “his statutory speedy trial rights” were violated in the East Bay court, the complaint filed June 24 read.

“The Superior Court abused its discretion because its finding was not based on any particularized showing of good cause and appears inconsistent with certain contemporaneous steps taken by the court.”

“This is absolutely important. There are people overcharged in custody or having their lives impacted (waiting),” Sonoma County criminal defense attorney Orchid Vaghti told the Business Journal. “The whole purpose of a preliminary hearing is to weed out groundless charges.”

But jury trials are quite another matter.

Napa is considering using the Hall of Records as a bigger venue to provide social distancing for jury selection.

Sonoma County will tap into its fairgrounds for the sifting of jury members. Marin County has curtailed the proceedings for now.

“We certainly don’t want to go to trial right now. Jurors polled have said they don’t think they can focus because of public safety,” Vaghti said. “There’s a tendency to say guilty too quickly.”

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