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Sonoma County court opens in fire aftermath

PAUL PAYNE,

Sonoma County courts opened in part to the public Monday after a two-week, wildfire-related closure that interrupted trials, created widespread confusion and threatens to create a sizable case backlog.

Traffic court and some civil departments remained closed but most of the criminal division resumed operations 13 days after the Tubbs fire burned within a quarter-mile of the Santa Rosa courthouse.

“I think the wheels of justice are turning with increasing speed,” District Attorney Jill Ravitch said Monday.

Proceedings were temporarily halted after the start of the Oct. 8 blaze because of smoke and because sheriff’s deputies who normally provide court security were called to assist in the disaster. The state’s chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, declared a court holiday for two weeks — through last Friday — to allow arraignment deadlines for newly arrested defendants to be extended.

Still, a skeleton crew consisting of a judge, a few prosecutors including Ravitch and Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi held court for several hundred inmates in a makeshift courtroom so they would not have to languish in jail. A concern was that the chief justice’s order did not extend to inmates awaiting preliminary hearings, Pozzi said.

“The judges and Jill and I were meeting every morning since the fire and kind of flying by the seat of our pants,” Pozzi said.

Normal operations will now be phased in over the coming weeks, said Gary Nadler, acting presiding judge.

Traffic court is expected to resume Wednesday. Court officials have not said how they plan to notify people of rescheduled court dates.

The confusion comes as the court was already dealing with a backlog caused by implementation of a controversial new case management system called Odyssey that has been blamed in other counties for processing delays.

Adding to any problems are at least two unfilled judgeships. Three judges who lost their homes in the fires have returned to work, Nadler said.

“We will meet the demands presented,” Nadler said, “and successfully address every case before us.”

Arlene D. Junior, the court’s new executive officer, did not immediately return a call Monday seeking comment.

Among the issues to be determined Tuesday is whether the trial of two men charged with robbing an armored car in 2016 can continue as planned.

Testimony began the week before the fires for defendants Ivan Morales and Sergey Gutsu, who face life in prison if convicted of holding up the armored car outside a Windsor bank and shooting a guard.

Two separate juries and a handful of alternates were empaneled to hear the case before Judge Patrick Broderick.

But it is unclear just how many on the panels will be able to continue. The trial, initially expected to run through mid-November, will be extended at least two weeks.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.