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Sonoma County Superior Court tests safeguards as it expands court access

The changes made inside Sonoma County Superior Court to allow the resumption of a wider range of criminal proceedings began Monday outside the Hall of Justice, where health screenings were underway for hundreds of out-of-custody defendants headed to court for the first time since mid-March.

Beyond that checkpoint and normal security screening – a process slowed by social distancing rules and the compact space where the screenings are done – there were many other modifications.

For one, everyone - court staff, attorneys, bailiffs, defendants and judges - was wearing a face mask.

In the courthouse halls, clerks toting tablets directed defendants to their respective courtrooms, occasionally asking them to wait nearby if the rooms were at capacity. Hallways were mostly empty, with benches and chairs that once provided court visitors a place sit pulled from their spots.

Stickers on the floor reminded visitors to keep their distance from one another and created a one-way loop, controlling the direction of travel of those entering and leaving the building, said Sonoma County Superior Court Executive Officer Arlene Junior.

Inside the courtrooms, clear, plastic sneeze guards similar to those found at most checkout stands created a barrier between the courtroom clerk’s desk and the center of the room, where defendants, their attorneys and prosecutors addressed the judge.

Large screens displayed the names and faces of people who were attending hearings via video conference call - prosecutors, probation officers and court reporters.

“We were able to get them in and get them to the courtrooms very quickly,” Junior said of defendants on-hand for hearings Monday morning. “It’s new. We’re learning as we go.”

Prior to Monday, the court had closed off public access to the building and rescheduled hearings for out-of-custody criminal defendants starting in mid-March.

The limited staff that worked in the courthouse in the initial weeks of the shelter-in-place continued to hold hearings for people in custody and kept doing other crucial work, such the processing protective orders for victims of domestic violence, Junior said.

Nine criminal courtrooms reopened Monday allowed judges to hear more cases, opening the doors for out-of-custody defendants. The building was still off limits for people without official court business and in-person hearings for civil cases were still on hold as of Monday. The court also cannot accommodate jury trials at the moment.

“We do not have the physical space to adhere to the 6-foot social distancing requirements at all times for the jury assembling and jury selection,” Junior said.

Before 9 a.m., a line of masked people wrapped around the courthouse on Administration Drive headed toward the building’s main entrance, one of two check-in areas on the property.

Once at the front, court staff checked to see if visitors were scheduled in court that morning and asked them a series of questions about their health and any potential exposure to the coronavirus, including international travel.

Staff collected phone numbers and then told visitors they’d receive a text message when cleared to enter the building.

With the day’s court calendar in hand and a fabric mask secured onto her face, Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi did her own check-ins with those waiting in line to make sure they were at the right place and to answer their questions.

She ran into a few people who didn’t know that their spouse and relatives would not be able to accompany them into the building. Other defendants showed up that wrong courthouse and needed redirection to the Empire College Annex on the other side of Highway 101, where some misdemeanor cases were being heard.

There were others who were scheduled to appear for a hearing Monday but were not assigned to a judge that morning. Pozzi sent those people to her office, so her staff could help them find a new court date.

“It’s going as good as it could,” Pozzi said by about 9:30 a.m., when only a handful of people remained in line. “I was expecting there to be a line from here to the Coddingtown Mall.”

Standing near the court’s main entrance, Daniel Arteche, 37, said he arrived at the courthouse at approximately 8 a.m. and had waited close to an hour before reaching the front of the line.

He checked his phone for a text message saying he could enter the building to attend his court hearing but saw no such notification.

“It’s alright,” Arteche said. “It’s just waiting in line like everywhere else. Businesses, grocery stores.”

Gabriel Quinnan, a local defense attorney who went to the courthouse to represent a few of his clients that morning, said the court’s proceedings moved at a slower pace than usual, though “went a lot smoother” than he had expected.

“I’m happy that things are starting to move along,” Quinnan said. “A lot of my clients are in custody and would like to see a resolution, one way or another.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com.

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