Sonoma County inmates appear before judges via video amid coronavirus worries
In an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus, each arraignment at the Sonoma County Superior Court will happen with one fewer person in the courtroom: the defendant.
For the first time in the local courthouse's history, inmates charged with felony and misdemeanor crimes will appear before judges virtually, using iPads inside the Sonoma County Jail to make video calls that are projected into the courtroom, Sonoma County Superior Court Executive Officer Arlene Junior said in an email.
Inside the courtroom, one camera gives inmates a view of the judge while a second camera focuses on an area shared by prosecutors and defense attorneys overseeing the case. Microphones capture and relay the voices of the inmate and those in the courtroom during the video call, Junior said.
Defendants are warned that everything they say during the hearing - including questions to their lawyers - is being documented by court recorders, are informed about their right to appear in person and are asked to sign a waiver to forgo that right if they agree, officials said.
The Sonoma County Superior Court began the video arraignments March 23 for felony cases and had added misdemeanor cases by the end of last week, Sonoma County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said.
Sentencing and early case resolution hearings, or hearings in which defendants, their lawyers and prosecutors determine whether they can reach a plea deal, were also being done with inmates appearing over video, Junior said.
“We're dealing with an unprecedented situation with no clear end date in sight, and the court system is very much appreciative of due process rights of defendants,” Staebell said.
“When those two things collide, you have to work to make the process go forward.”
The new technology has raised concerns among local defense attorneys and the county's top public defender, all of whom agreed the video appearances make sense in light of the coronavirus pandemic and related social distancing guidelines, but who argued the technology inhibits them from having private conversations with clients before and during arraignments.
“Bottom line is that we like our clients in court in person, but respect social distancing in this crisis,” Sonoma County Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said in an email. “Video arraignments impinge upon confidential communication between lawyers and clients.”
The video arraignments are just one of several changes at the Sonoma County Superior Court since about mid-March, when court officials announced the start of a three-week partial closure of the facility because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The partial closure put all noncrucial court functions on hold as skeleton staffs focused their efforts on misdemeanor and felony cases, including arraignments, for in-custody offenders in the local adult and juvenile detention system.
Criminal cases for defendants not behind bars were delayed for approximately a month and most civil cases were rescheduled for 30 to 60 days after their original court date, court officials said.
Judges, prosecutors and jail staff have also agreed to release many nonviolent, low-level offenders housed at the county's two jails to reduce the risk of the coronavirus entering the facilities, which has shrunk the inmate population by about 200 people, or 20% of the daily average.
Most inmates charged with low-level, nonviolent crimes are being released back into the community after their arraignments as long as they promise to return to the courthouse for hearings, Staebell said.
Evan Zelig, a local criminal defense lawyer, said he represented two clients this week who were arraigned over video.
He commended judicial staff for their speed and efficiency in setting up the video technology, which has reduced the number of inmates in courtrooms in recent days and improved social distancing.
“They were still bringing a lot of inmates into the court and they were sitting very closely,” Zelig said of court hearings earlier this week. “At this point, they're bringing very few inmates into the court, and that's the goal.”
But he also noticed the video conferencing prevents attorneys from having private discussions with their clients, conversations that may reveal important information not included in reports that help judges decide whether an inmate should be released pending trial, or with a modified bail.
The conversations also allow attorneys to provide quick, confidential guidance to clients if they are unsure about how to answer questions from a judge, Zelig said.
“It's just difficult to have those conversation where we're basically in a courtroom where everyone can hear what everyone else is saying,” Zelig said.
Kristine Burk, another local criminal defense attorney, said she witnessed two video arraignments Friday morning in which defendants asked their attorneys questions in open court that would have likely happened in whispers under different circumstances.
She is worried a defendant might say something that could be incriminating, despite official warnings.
Burk said she also wondered if the video technology would be expanded to other types of hearings, and what impact that would have on cases.
“This entire process has revealed how much the court system depends on ... face to face conversations,” Burk said. “I'm afraid what's going to trump will be a perhaps an overemphasis of health concerns to the detriment of the inmates.”
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