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.