DA: Wave of case rejections signals ‘crisis’ threatening public safety

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Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said Friday that a series of criminal cases recently dismissed by Superior Court judges “pose a danger to the public” that threatens to escalate, leading to a blackout potential of the local justice system if the trend is allowed to continue.

“Unless the courts stop these dismissals, the backlog of criminal cases will grow and our justice system will risk collapsing,” Hestrin said in a video message released by the prosecutor’s office. “Now is not the time to focus on anything other than the current crisis. Courts are required to use all available resources to ensure that all cases and disputes are adjudicated by a court in a timely manner. .

Hestrin sounded the alarm for the first time earlier this week, announcing that in the previous week more than 200 felony and misdemeanor cases, mostly domestic violence cases, had been abruptly dismissed by judges from all over the county.

“When a judge dismisses a domestic violence case, they also end the victim’s criminal protection order. This is nothing less than an injustice and a disservice to victims and public safety,” Hestrin said.

Representatives from the DA office also said the assault and robbery cases were dismissed.

According to Hestrin, a backlog of nearly 2,800 criminal cases exploded during the “enforced COVID-19 lockdowns” that were announced in March 2020.

The California Chief Justice‘s office issued a series of emergency orders that paved the way for months of court proceedings to be halted. Cases swelled as several Riverside County courthouses were closed for most of 2020 and others were only available to the public for limited hours each week.

Between early spring and late summer 2020, jury trials were suspended unless they had already begun.

Superior Court Presiding Judge John Monterosso issued a statement on Tuesday acknowledging that the justice system is carrying a heavy burden, related to the closings and the resulting changes to the operation of the courts.

“I share the frustration of others when a case is not resolved on the merits, or due process is compromised, due to a lack of available judicial resources,” Monterosso said. “The genesis of the current set of circumstances is the chronic, generational lack of judges assigned to serve Riverside County.”

He pointed out that the county has 90 licensed and funded court positions, but a 2020 court needs assessment study noted that 115 court officers are needed to ensure effective operations across the local court system and avoid traffic jams.

“The waiver of statutory time limits for criminal trials under emergency orders has delayed the ‘court day’ for many defendants and those affected by the alleged crimes,” Monterosso said. “Although the law allows a court to pursue a case beyond the statutory time limit for ‘good cause’, the determination of whether ‘good cause’ exists is an individualized decision made by the trial judge on the basis of the law and the facts of the case.”

Hestrin sympathized with the fact “that we have far fewer…judicial seats than we need based on population.”

“But that has been the case for as long as anyone can remember,” he said. “Before the pandemic, we had not seen a criminal case dismissed for lack of a courtroom in over a decade.”

He said defendants whose cases have been repeatedly delayed are watching the current drama unfold and ‘have no incentive to resolve a case before trial’ as long as holding on may lead. ultimately to dismissal.

“This situation is unsustainable and poses a danger to the public,” Hestrin said. “We are not asking for a specific result. We ask judges to look at the facts of cases and the backlog. »

Monterosso countered that judges are stepping up their efforts to accommodate trial demands, often summoning potential jurors for screening late on weekdays in courtrooms where juries in other cases are still deliberating.

However, Hestrin said that at the time of the mass layoffs, 500 potential jurors who were ready to be assigned to courtrooms were sent home, with judges refusing to accept requests for “briefs” postponed until courtrooms are available.

“(It) looks like poor resource management,” the DA said. “It is simply unacceptable. If we have an emergency in our courts that warrants the dismissal of a felony, then it should be an emergency in every county courtroom and should warrant a comprehensive approach to trying cases. My prosecutors are ready to prosecute at any time.

He recommended “longer hours” each weekday, starting night courts and even weekend court hours to clear up the backlog. It was unclear what overtime costs and other budget pressures these actions might precipitate.

All COVID-related emergency orders affecting county courts expired Oct. 7.

The current backlog recalls the cumulative impact of a backlog of unsolved criminal cases in 2007 that prompted the state to send a “judicial strike team” to the county to help triage criminal cases clogging the court system. .

At the time, the Superior Court all but halted civil jury trials for months while judges focused on easing the strain on resources. An empty primary school has even been turned into a makeshift courthouse.

The backlog then was about half of what it is now.

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