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Sonoma County Superior Court streamlines hearings to save time for jurors

  • Sonoma County Superior Court judge Rene Chouteau, background, in 2012. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Sonoma County judges hope a change in the way they handle the most serious criminal cases will take some of the pain out of a much-dreaded civic obligation — jury duty.

Starting Thursday, one Superior Court judge will oversee all criminal preliminary hearings, freeing other judges to concentrate on trials. The move is expected to limit interruptions that can extend weeklong trials into a second week.

“The goal is to get more trial time and get jurors in and out faster,” Presiding Judge Ken Gnoss said.

Preliminary hearings — also known as probable cause hearings — come at the pre-trial stage. Judges listen to testimony, usually from police or crime victims, and determine if there is enough evidence for felony charges and a trial.

In a six-month period ending in June, Sonoma County judges oversaw 132 preliminary hearings, varying in length from a few minutes to several days.

Each felony judge has set aside one day a week for the hearings. But now, the responsibility for most prelims — those shorter than three hours long — will shift to Judge Peter Ottenweller, a misdemeanor trial judge since 2011.

Longer, more complex hearings will stay with one of five felony trial judges. The court has an average of about 60 felony and 40 misdemeanor jury trials each year.

The new arrangement is not expected to save money. Jose Guillen, the court's executive officer, said the focus instead is on making the legal system more efficient. The exact cost was not immediately available.

Guillen said its success will be evaluated over time. The program could be reversed if it does not work, he said.

“It's something new for our judicial and legal culture,” Guillen said. “We're doing it with that in mind.”

Lawyers voiced skepticism about whether a court dedicated to preliminary hearings would improve the system. A similar court was disbanded about a decade ago during broad changes.

Some said it disrupts continuity of cases to have more than one judge involved. Other said scheduling trials and prelims in front of different judges invites problems.

“I don't know. We'll see how it works,” said Deputy Public Defender Ande Thomas. “It was something we did years ago. It was generally conceded that it had problems.”

But Gnoss was optimistic it will work this time around. A decision was made by leadership of the 21-member bench to accommodate jurors and trial judges, he said.

“It will speed up the length of time they are here,” he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.)

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