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Sonoma County court halts new jury trials due to local omicron surge

Some civil and criminal trials not currently in progress in Sonoma County Superior Court have been postponed due to the ongoing local surge of COVID-19 cases attributed to the highly contagious omicron variant, court officials announced Tuesday.

According to an emergency order signed by Presiding Judge Shelly Averill, criminal jury trials originally scheduled for January that have not yet started are put off until after March 1 or later. Civil jury trials have been pushed back even later, until after March 31.

“Due to the recent substantial surge in COVID-19 delta variant infections, and the arrival of the highly contagious omicron variant, as reported by the California Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control, action is needed to maintain a substantial level of court services to the public, to maintain access to justice for all, and to keep all who enter a courthouse, including employees of the court and jurors, as safe as possible through the next 30 days,” Averill wrote in her order.

Exceptions to these delays include criminal trials in which defendants have not waived their guarantee of a speedy trial before March, and civil trials with certain deadlines or statutory preferences, Averill said.

All hearings scheduled for after Feb. 4 will continue as planned.

While intended to curb threats to public health, Tuesday’s announcement caused concern among some officials who worried trial delays would further snarl a court system already strained because of previous protocol changes put in place when the pandemic began two years ago.

Jan. 4, 2022 Sonoma County Superior Court Emergency Order

Health authorities detected the first confirmed case of omicron in Sonoma County in mid-December. The patient was fully vaccinated and boosted. Places where omicron has taken hold nationally and worldwide have experienced an exponential increase in infections.

In Sonoma County, virus transmission has skyrocketed since mid-December, when the rate was 13.9 new daily cases per 100,000 people. According the county’s latest data, the rate is now nearly 50 new daily cases per 100,000, approaching last winter’s peak surge.

Testing positivity, the share of COVID-19 tests that return with positive results, is now nearly 12%, compared to 2.5% on December 15.

The court’s emergency order does not impact operating hours and the facilities remain open to the public, said Court Executive Officer Arlene Junior.

Agencies operating out of the courthouse learned of the changes during a Zoom meeting Monday afternoon.

“The emergency order strikes a delicate balance between a defendant’s right to trial and protecting against COVID-19 transmission,” wrote Public Defender Brian Morris in an email. “We appreciate that jury trials required by law to begin by a certain date will be allowed to start on time. We also understand the decision to delay other trials until after more is known about the omicron variant spike.”

District Attorney Jill Ravitch was concerned that pushing certain criminal trials back would harm vulnerable victims in the most serious violent crimes cases.

“I commend the court for being cautious and concerned, as we all are,” Ravitch said. “I requested the court exercise restraint rather than issue blanket orders.”

She added that she preferred the decision to reschedule proceedings be made on an individual basis, with the seriousness of the offense taken into account.

“The defendants have a right to resolve their matters in some way and due process, as do the people and the victims. We have victims that have been waiting for years to tell their stories,” Ravitch said. “I’m not not suggesting anyone be put in harm’s way, but we should take it one case at a time.”

Averill told The Press Democrat on Tuesday that the court will consider requests to hold certain trials that have been postponed through January.

“With regard to serious, violent cases, we certainly share the concern of our justice partners, and if there are cases in which our District Attorney raises the concern about the need for the case to move forward in that timeline, we will certainly evaluate that on a case-by-case basis,” Averill said.

The intention of the emergency order, she added, is to get through the COVID-19 spike experts expect to occur in mid-January with as few jurors gathered inside as possible.

Averill said she intends to return the schedule to normal on Feb. 4; cases postponed in the next 30 days will be pushed to March so as not to crowd next month’s calendar.

Criminal jury trials resumed again in Sonoma County in March 2021 after a series of postponements ordered at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

The involuntary manslaughter trial of former Sheriff’s Office Deputy Charles Blount, who is accused of killing David Ward during a 2019 traffic stop, began with jury selection Monday and will continue as scheduled through January.

Parties to the case expect proceedings to go on until at least early February.

Other civil matters, including guardianship and conservatorship cases, will proceed remotely or be continued to after March 31 as well. Any open proceedings held virtually will be accessible to the public via Zoom.

Averill’s emergency order outlines other pandemic precautionary measures, including strict enforcement of masking with Cal OSHA-compliant face coverings.

Everyone in the courthouse regardless of vaccination status must mask at all times, including employees, staff, judicial officers, attorneys, witnesses and members of the public.

Judges may allow a defendant to briefly lower their mask for the purposes of identification for the record. They may also have the authority to remove people from the premises if they fail to follow these orders or have observable COVID-19-like symptoms.

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this story.

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

Emily Wilder

Criminal justice and public safety, The Press Democrat  

Criminal justice is one of the most stirring and consequential systems, both in the North Bay and nationwide. Crime, policing, prosecution and incarceration have ripples that reach many parts of our lives, and these issues are under increasingly powerful microscopes. My goal is to uncover untold stories and understand the unique impacts of criminal justice and public safety on Sonoma County.

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