Sonoma County Superior Court resuming more criminal proceedings as justice system shifts toward return

Nine additional courtrooms at Sonoma County Superior Court will open for criminal proceedings Monday, the largest resumption of judicial operations since local shelter-in-place orders curtailed most hearings and cut off public access to the justice system in mid-March.

The expansion will allow judges to hear a greater number and variety of criminal cases that were postponed to limit the number of people appearing before judges and stave off potential coronavirus transmission. Those without official court business, including relatives and friends of defendants, will still be barred entry.

Proceedings resuming Monday include sentencing and arraignments hearings and general misdemeanor calendar items for defendants not in jail, Sonoma County Superior Court Executive Officer Arlene Junior said.

About 400 cases will be on calendar, District Attorney Jill Ravitch said. That compares with about 1,000 on an average day.

Under new court rules going into effect as court opens Monday morning, defendants, attorneys, law enforcement personnel and essential court staff will need to pass a health screening before being allowed indoors.

Members of the public without a court hearing or with court business that can be completed online, such as paying a traffic ticket, will not be allowed in, Junior said.

“From entrance to exit, it will be dramatically different,” she said.

A digital queuing system will help staff control the number of defendants inside the courthouse through text notification alerting them when they may proceed inside.

The court commissioned a phone app that will keep track of hearings and defendants, allowing defendants to check in and then go to their vehicles and be notified when their hearing is approaching, Ravitch said.

“If they don’t have a phone, the court has wranglers to go and find them,” she said.

Social distancing and facial coverings will be required indoors at all times in the criminal courthouse at 600 Administration Drive and the civil court off Cleveland Avenue.

Security screenings of people entering the buildings are expected to be slower than usual to adhere to social distancing requirements.

Staff will limit the number of people in each courtroom as well, and people will not be allowed to gather in groups while inside the building.

Most prosecutors will continue to appear remotely, Ravitch said, although one prosecutor will be in each courtroom and another available on Zoom.

Defense attorneys can meet remotely with clients if they choose, Ravitch said, although attorneys from the Public Defender’s Office will be in the courtrooms.

The reopening of the additional courtrooms comes as a 90-day extension from California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye for when criminal cases must be brought before a jury inches closer to timing out, Junior said.

Jury selection also has been postponed, though court staff hope to resume that process as early as mid-July.

The court’s facilities, however, don’t allow for the hundreds of people who are called in for jury selection to gather at once while maintaining social distancing, a major roadblock, Junior said.

Court staff is eyeing other venues in the community that might help accommodate the large number of people required for jury selection.

Seven of the nine courtrooms opening on Monday will be at the main courthouse on Administration Drive, while two other courtrooms at the Empire College Annex, which typically handles civil cases, will host defendants with misdemeanor criminal matters, Junior said.

Civil cases, which have more flexible time frames for when they must go to trial, could start as soon as August, she added.

Ravitch said the backlog of cases that has built up in the past 10 weeks will encourage case-resolution agreements between attorneys.

“The court told us if a case is not ready or doesn’t resolve, it could be continued for another 30 days. So the incentive is to resolve these cases,” she said. “But we’re not going to give away the store. I had an attorney meeting on Zoom Friday. I told them to think about accountability and protecting the victim and protecting the community.”

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