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COVID pandemic justified suspension of right to speedy trial

Hernandez-Valenzuela v. Superior CourtDocket: A163992(First Appellate District) Opinion Date: March 4, 2022

Facts: Hernandez-Valenzuela (collectively “petitioners”) sought a writ of mandate or prohibition requiring respondent Superior Court of the City and County of San Francisco to dismiss his case for violating his speedy trial rights under Penal Code section 1382.2 Petitioner contend there was no good cause to continue their cases past the statutory deadline. We disagree and therefore deny each of their petitions.

The COVID-19 Pandemic and San Francisco Court operations

On March 4, 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in response to the global outbreak of COVID-19.

On March 16, 2020, the San Francisco Health Officer issued a shelter- in-place order requiring residents of the county to remain in their homes except when engaging in essential activities, and to stay at least six feet apart from other persons when leaving their homes.The Governor issued an executive order requiring all Californians to stay at home except for limited activities. On March 23, 2020, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, in her capacity as Chairperson of the Judicial Council, issued an emergency statewide order suspending all jury trials and continuing them for a period of 60 days. The Chief Justice also extended by 60 days the time period provided for in section 1382 for holding a criminal trial. In so ordering, the Chief Justice explained: “The [Center for Disease Control], the California Department of Public Health, and local county health departments have recommended increasingly stringent social distancing measures of at least six feet between people, and encouraged vulnerable individuals to avoid public spaces.  Courts cannot comply with these health restrictions and continue to operate as they have in the past.”

On March 30, 2020, the Chief Justice issued a second statewide emergency order, authorizing superior courts to issue implementation orders that “[e]xtend the time period provided in section 1382 of the Penal Code for the holding of a criminal trial by no more than 60 days from the last date on which the statutory deadline otherwise would have expired.”

On April 29, 2020, the Chief Justice issued a third statewide emergency order, stating: “The 60-day continuance of criminal jury trials and the 60-day extension of time in which to conduct a criminal trial under Penal Code section 1382, both of which I first authorized in my order of March 23, 2020, are to be extended an additional 30 days. The total extension of 90 days shall be calculated from the last date on which the trial initially could have been conducted under Penal Code section 1382.” The Chief Justice explained the extension applied to those matters for which the last date on which trial could be conducted under section 1382 occurred or would occur between March 16, 2020, and June 15, 2020.

Trial Court Proceedings against Hernandez-Valenzuela

On July 19, 2021, an information  charged Hernandez-Valenzuela with discharge of a firearm (§ 246.3, subd. (a)); exhibiting a concealed firearm in public (§ 417, subd. (a)(2)(A)); possession of a firearm by a felon (§ 29800, subd. (a)(1)); convicted person carrying a firearm (§ 25850, subd. (a)); convicted person having a concealed firearm in a vehicle (§ 25400, subd. (a)(1)); evading an officer with willful disregard (Vehicle Code, § 2800.2, subd. (a)); possession of ammunition (§ 30305, subd. (a)(1)); and resisting destruction or delaying of a peace officer (§ 148, subd. (a)(1)). On July 26, 2021, he was arraigned on these charges, entered not guilty pleas, and requested a jury trial on a no-time-waiver basis.

On September 24, 2021, the court called Case No. 21005426 for trial. The court noted it was the last statutory day, and the parties announced ready. The court found “exceptional and extraordinary circumstances” existed which constituted good cause to continue Hernandez- Valenzuela’s trial past the statutory last day. The court described the “life threatening” COVID-19 pandemic and noted the increase in the number of infected Americans (over 39 million) and the number of deaths (over 621,000) attributable to the virus. In explaining the insufficient security at the Civic Center Courthouse for criminal trials other than nonviolent misdemeanor trials, the court added that there were not enough bailiffs to cover each courtroom and that the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office was already overextended at the jails and the Hall of Justice. Over Hernandez- Valenzuela’s objection, the court continued his jury trial to February 25, 2022.

On October 13, 2021, Hernandez-Valenzuela moved to dismiss his case for violating his speedy trial rights under section 1382 and the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The court denied the motion.

Petitioners’ Writ Proceedings

On November 24, 2021,  Hernandez-Valenzuela separately petitioned for a writ of mandate or prohibition seeking the dismissal of his case based on the violation of his speedy trial rights without good cause. On December 22, 2021, the court issued  orders to show cause (“OSC”) to the People as the Real Party in Interest why the relief requested by petitioners should not be granted.

Right to speedy trial

Section 1382 provides that, in a felony case, “the court shall dismiss the action when a defendant is not brought to trial within 60 days of his or her arraignment on an indictment or information, unless (1) the defendant enters a general waiver of the 60-day trial requirement, (2) the defendant requests or consents (expressly or impliedly) to the setting of a trial date beyond the 60-day period (in which case the defendant shall be brought to trial on the date set for trial or within 10 days thereafter), or (3) ‘good cause’ is shown.” (Sutton, supra, 48 Cal.4th at p. 545; see also § 1382, subd. (a).)

“No affirmative showing of prejudice is necessary to obtain a dismissal for violation of the state constitutional speedy trial right as construed and implemented by statute.  Instead, ‘an unexcused delay beyond the time fixed in section 1382 . . . without defendant’s consent entitles the defendant to a dismissal.’ ” (People v. Martinez (2000) 22 Cal.4th 750, 766.) The prosecution has the burden of establishing good cause to avoid dismissal.

Hernandez-Valenzuela was arraigned on July 26, 2021, so his last statutory day for trial was September 24, 2021. On that day, his trial was continued to February 25, 2022. He never waived time, nor did he consent to a continuance.

The issue is whether the trial court abused its discretion in finding exceptional and extraordinary circumstances constituting good cause to continue both petitioners’ jury trials past their last statutory days.

“Whether or not good cause exists depends on the circumstances of the case.” (Rhinehart, supra, 35 Cal.3d at p. 781.) “ ‘[S]ection 1382 does not define “good cause” as that term is used in the provision, but numerous California appellate decisions that have reviewed good-cause determinations under this statute demonstrate that, in general, a number of factors are relevant to a determination of good cause: (1) the nature and strength of the justification for the delay, (2) the duration of the delay, and (3) the prejudice to either the defendant or the prosecution that is likely to result from the delay.’ ” (Engram, supra, 50 Cal.4th at pp. 1162–1163.)

The Supreme Court explained that the critical inquiry is whether the congestion or backlog is attributable to chronic conditions as opposed to exceptional circumstances considering all of the relevant circumstances. (Johnson, supra, 36 Cal.3d at p. 572; Engram, supra, 50 Cal.4th at p. 1163.) The District Attorney adequately showed respondent court’s backlog resulting in the delay of petitioners’ trials was attributable to exceptional circumstances connected to the COVID-19 pandemic, not chronic conditions in respondent court.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a “ ‘unique, nonrecurring event[]’ ” which “ ‘ha[s] produced an inordinate number of cases for court disposition,’ ” and thus exceptional circumstances justifying delay of petitioner’s trial. (Johnson, supra, 26 Cal.3d at p. 571.)

After fifteen months of constrained operations resulting in a backlog of numerous no-time-waiver cases, it was not unreasonable for respondent court to not have addressed its backlog within seven, nine, or twelve weeks of reopening.

Conditions of incarceration at SF County Jail

Petitioner alleged that people incarcerated in the San Francisco County Jail face harsh conditions of confinement that coupled with the uncertainty about when trial will come, lead to grave mental suffering. The  COVID-19 pandemic presented trial courts with unprecedent challenges, including when and how to conduct jury trials without endangering public health and safety while not undermining defendants’ right to a jury trial.

The petitions for writ of mandate or prohibition are denied, and the orders to show cause discharged.

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