Bench Warrant Can Issue Even Without Showing Defendant Had Notice

Valderas v. Superior Court of San Diego County (Cal. Ct. App., Nov. 30, 2021, No. D078735) 2021 WL 5575569, at *1

Summary: Valderas, facing several felony charges, did not appear at a status conference/trial call on October 20, 2020. It was the second consecutive court appearance that Valderas missed. The trial court issued a bench warrant for Valderas but ordered the warrant to be held until December 8, 2020, the date on which the court had set a readiness conference. The court sent notice to Valderas by mail to his last known address. When Valderas did not appear at the December 8 hearing, the court lifted its hold on the bench warrant.

Valderas seeks a writ of mandamus to recall the December 8 bench warrant. The court denied Valderas’s  relief.

Background: The last hearing that Valderas attended was on March 9, 2020. At that hearing, a readiness conference was scheduled for March 30, 2020 and the trial date was April 14, 2020.

After the March 9 hearing,  the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the San Diego Superior Court system. The San Diego Superior Court issued a news release stating the court would be closed from March 17, 2020 to April 3, 2020. This closure covered “[a]ll criminal proceedings including arraignments, readiness, pre-trial motions, trials and sentencing.”

On March 18, 2020, the presiding judge of the San Diego Superior Court issued an order that only essential services, which did not include criminal readiness conferences or criminal jury trials,  would be available at the superior court between March 17 and April 3, 2020.  The court was closed on the date set for Valderas’s trial (April 14, 2020).

On August 24, 2020, a “Notice of Rescheduled Hearing” was filed. That notice ordered Valderas to appear at a virtual hearing, for trial call, on September 22, 2020. The notice was mailed to Valderas on August 24, 2020, and emails to the prosecutor and the public defender were sent on that date.

On September 22, 2020, Valderas did not appear at the scheduled hearing. Valderas’s counsel explained to the court that she typically only has contact with Valderas when he comes to court. She also told the court that Valderas is “always in a flux with having access to a cell phone,” and she was not surprised by her lack of contact with him. Defense counsel asked the court not to issue a bench warrant “because the situation is beyond [Valderas’s] control and created by the pandemic.” The court found good cause to continue the hearing and set the case for a status conference/trial call on October 20, 2020.

On October 20, 2020, Valderas again did not appear at the scheduled hearing. His counsel reiterated that she typically only has contact with Valderas at court hearings. Defense counsel maintained that she had no information indicating that Valderas received notice of the hearing. She also stated that Valderas “was kind of hopping around different places.” The court issued but held the bench warrant until the next hearing.

The court continued the jury trial until February 23, 2021 and set a readiness conference for December 8, 2020. The court indicated that it would send notice to Valderas about the hearing dates to his last known address.

Valderas did not appear at the December 8, 2020 hearing. Valderas’s counsel asked the court to continue to hold the bench warrant. The court stated that it provided the notice as required in the law, and issued a $150,000 bench warrant.

On March 29, 2021, Valderas filed a petition for writ of mandamus seeking an order to set aside the December 8, 2020 bench warrant. The court denied the petition. Valderas then sought review by the California Supreme Court, which the court granted. It then transferred the matter back to the trial court with directions to vacate its order denying mandamus and to issue an order directing the respondent to show cause why the relief sought in the petition should not be granted.

Valderas argues that a court may only issue a bench warrant if it can show that the subject defendant had actual notice of the hearing date he or she missed. The COVID-19 pandemic caused the San Diego Superior Court to close for all criminal proceedings and continue all hearing and trial dates, thus requiring new dates be set for Valderas’s upcoming hearings and trial.

Notice was reasonable: the  method of providing notice was not only reasonable but necessary. The court gave Valderas multiple opportunities and additional time to contact the court and/or his attorney. Only after Valderas missed his third consecutive hearing did the court release its hold on the bench warrant. There was nothing else the court could have done in this situation.

Burden on Valderas even with the pandemic closing the court

The burden appropriately falls on Valderas. Valderas has been charged with multiple felonies. He was aware that he had a trial date of April 14, 2020 and that the trial date was cancelled because of the pandemic. It is not too burdensome to require him to check in with the court or his attorney in the eight months that followed the continuation of his trial date. The court provided notice of the hearings by mail to the address on file for Valderas. Ab court in this situation in not required to track down Valderas’s actual whereabouts, provide him with notice of a hearing, and, only then, if he does not appear, issue a bench warrant. There is no  such requirement exists under California law.

The court correctly exercised its discretion in issuing the bench warrant for Valderas. There is no due process violation here in the court merely issuing a bench warrant. Without the issuance of a warrant, there is no way to require Valderas to appear in court. Even with a pandemic, a  defendant, who has been charged with serious crimes, cannot avoid answering for those charges simply by claiming a lack of actual notice thereby stripping the court of its discretion to issue a bench warrant. The court  declined to create such an opportunity to avoid legitimate prosecution.

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