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Sonoma County court delays, barriers to public criminal records a ‘nightmare’ for defense attorneys, the public

Court administration insisted that the change to the criminal records policy requiring people wait days to weeks for public records is a result of staffing issues at the Hall of Justice.|

If you need a copy of a criminal record from the Sonoma County Superior Court to dispute a background check or get information on a relative’s case, you’ll be told to fill out a request form and wait a week or longer.

Meanwhile, across the courtyard at the civil and family clerk’s office, a noncriminal record will be printed out and handed to you on request.

Court officials gave conflicting explanations for the holdup in providing criminal court documents, some calling it a result of administrative challenges caused by the pandemic and others denying the policy exists or saying it has long been this way.

According to current and former employees, the policy change has worsened the staffing and COVID-19 exposure issues instead of improving them.

Defense attorneys and First Amendment advocates, meanwhile, say the delays are more than an inconvenience.

They’re hindering people’s efforts to move past convictions, obtain jobs and housing, understand their own cases or the cases of loved ones, and receive adequate legal representation, they say.

“The issue is this: it is a denial of access to justice that starts at the bare minimum with access to information that is public,” said Ryan Wilber, a Santa Rosa defense attorney.

After repeated inquiries from The Press Democrat, court officials began prioritizing media requests, but not for the general public. However, under California’s public records laws, there is no special privilege for journalists, who obtain records under the same law as the general public.

“The past two years have not been an ideal time for anyone,” Presiding Judge Shelly Averill wrote in an email in response to The Press Democrat’s questions. “We hope that court users will appreciate these difficulties and be patient with the employees they encounter as they continue to provide services as we rebuild our workforce.”

It’s not the first time the Sonoma County courthouse has been criticized by the public for transparency issues, including public notification of internal COVID-19 outbreaks and its cumbersome, oft-inaccurate online hearing schedule. But to some in the community, timely access to criminal records is of particular urgency.

“There is a First Amendment right at stake here,” said civil rights lawyer David Snyder.

‘A freaking nightmare’

Courts have a paramount duty to make public criminal proceedings and filings accessible, said Snyder, the executive director of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition, which advocates for free speech and open government.

“A delay in access of this magnitude really amounts to a denial of access, and our Constitution makes clear that our court system is a public court system that the public has a fundamental right to oversee,” Snyder said.

In Sonoma County, people who want physical copies of criminal complaints, hearing minutes, motions, bail information, arrest or search warrants, judgments or other kinds of criminal records must submit a form in person or by mail to the criminal clerk’s office at the Hall of Justice.

Then, they generally must wait seven to 10 days (or more) before the records are produced. Customers can look up cases online on computers in the clerk’s office computers, but they cannot print them out.

District Attorney Jill Ravitch said she believes that a delay for the public of a week is a nonissue.

“In a world dominated by the click of a button, impatience is often found in many places where information is not immediately available, particularly when hampered by the impact of COVID,” Ravitch said in an email.

But while prosecutors in her office and other courthouse agencies have instant access to court documents through a special online portal, the rest of courthouse users — private defense attorneys, journalists, criminal defendants and their families — face limitations that amount to more than minor inconvenience.

“It is a freaking nightmare,” said Roy Miller, a local defense attorney and one of the most vocal critics of the court’s public records process. “Where in the past all you had to do is give them a case number and they charge you 25 cents (per page) and you’re done … now, being told it’ll be days and weeks, that’s absurd.

“The fact that they are not providing the information we need is making it harder for everyone to do what they need to do,” Miller added.

Miller said the obstacles obstruct his and other private attorneys’ ability to help clients when they take over an in-progress case or seek documents that are not available from opposing counsel in the discovery process.

But more pressing, he and others agreed, is the cascading fallout the delays can have for everyday people.

“Criminal defendants and their (families) have a right to understand what the state alleges in order to defend themselves,” Snyder said.

When that is impeded, it can cause other problems down the line. A person applying for a job or professional license is “relying on an accurate court record so they can explain why there may be some incident that comes up on a background check,” and now, “they can’t get it in time,” Wilber said.

Additionally, if someone needs specific information from a previous conviction to properly apply for expungement, “they’re not going to be able to do that immediately the way it used to be,” Sebastopol defense attorney Omar Figueroa said.

Longtime North Bay defense attorney Walt Rubenstein said several of his clients are experiencing these impacts.

A woman hoping to become a nurse is struggling to get an expungement so she can obtain her license, he said. And for another of his clients, a man convicted of a crime decades ago, the records delays are complicating his efforts to clear his record, get a new job and move out of his relative’s house.

Court administration pleads ignorance, necessity

Each of the defense attorneys interviewed by The Press Democrat independently confirmed that their concerns have been raised numerous times with court administrators and judges.

However, Court Executive Officer Arlene Junior initially denied any knowledge of the protocol in multiple emails and in an interview with The Press Democrat. Pressed further, she said if there was any change in operations, it was an informal one due to circumstances out of the court’s control.

“The employees are overwhelmed. We have spent two years in an unprecedented pandemic. Everything that has dominated businesses all over the world, the court is no different,” Junior said.

She also suggested that the discrepancy between civil and criminal court policy was because of differences in how documents and evidence are filed electronically.

Some of what she said contradicted clerk’s office employees and other court officials.

Diego Santelices, a union representative for the courthouse clerks, said that the administration mandated the change to criminal records policy during the COVID-19 pandemic to limit face-to-face interactions between staff and the public.

Junior, though, maintained that it was “not something they were directed to do” by her.

Presiding Judge Averill also differed, acknowledging the new records request procedure and describing it as a vestige of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on court staff — “an attempt to balance the interests of all court users.”

“As the staffing capacity in the clerk’s office diminished and fewer windows were open to service court users, it became more difficult to provide documents on demand without a long line forming,” Averill wrote in an email. “Understandably, we received complaints about the long wait times and attempted to respond accordingly.”

Though court officials did not provide the exact number of vacant positions in the Court Clerk’s Office, a November Press Democrat report found that the courthouse’s strict vaccine mandate was pushing employees out, resulting in scheduling and document backlogs.

Suzie Schlick, who left the clerk’s office last August after six years working in various administrative roles, cast doubt on the officials’ reasoning.

The clerks’ procedure in the past, Schlick said, was to “punch in the case number into the computer and hit the button that says ‘print.’”

The change, “in my opinion, it creates far more work,” she said.

A current clerk’s office employee who did not want to be named out of fear of retaliation said that the new records request process was intended to limit their exposure and help alleviate short-staffing, but now has worsened both.

“It made sense” in the beginning, she said in a phone interview. “But when we opened to the public and we continued it, I said, ‘That’s actually stupid.’ We’re trying to minimize people coming in here, but instead of giving (the records) to them through the window, now we’re having them come in twice.”

Promised change

Even with administrative setbacks, the Sonoma County court’s rationale for its public records management is legally dubious under the U.S. Constitution, according to Snyder with the First Amendment Coalition.

“A huge drop off in staffing could potentially provide some justification if they literally didn’t have the manpower to print out documents to the public upon request. That could conceivably justify some brief period of delay,” he said. “My concern is the court does not appear to be prioritizing public access for the fundamental, constitutional right that it is.”

In other words, Synder said, “If what the court is doing is handling whatever administrative burden it has by downgrading the importance of public access, that’s a real problem.”

Junior acknowledged that until The Press Democrat’s inquiries, the court was doing exactly that.

“Has (records access) been prioritized until now? Probably not,” she said. “We have not had the staff, the time, the attention to dedicate the resources to make criminal documents available. The court has been dominated by trying to keep our doors open.”

However, she promised swift course-correction in the clerk’s office expecting that criminal documents will soon — again — be available by verbal request.

Averill added that with 38 newly hired staff members since July 1, plans to continue recruitment and new technology to bolster online access, the court is hopeful it will begin rebuilding services that suffered during the pandemic and start offering new ones.

“My statement, emphatic statement,” Junior said, is “the media and the public will see immediate improvement in access to criminal documents.”

Press priority for public records ‘unacceptable’

After emails to and calls with The Press Democrat, court administrator Arlene Junior told a reporter that she instructed clerks to prioritize records requests from the media.

While general members of the public should also get “a timely response,” Junior said, “When a reporter walks into a clerk’s office, I expect those to be prioritized.”

As of Wednesday, this appeared to be the case. A reporter attempting to get criminal documents was handed a request form and informed of the projected wait before identifying herself as a journalist, at which point a clerk printed out the desired document on the spot.

“I’m of course all in favor of the media getting prompt access to court records, but there shouldn’t be a distinction,” said First Amendment Coalition lawyer David Snyder.

“The public and the press both have a timely right to access court records, and making the public wait for a week for a document that can be printed out on the spot is unacceptable.”

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

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