Nearly two dozen suspected felons were released from jail when a judge failed to show up for his scheduled weekend shift and sign papers to keep them behind bars.
Municipal Judge Vincent McGraw said he knew he had been assigned to sign "probable cause declarations" to keep some suspects in jail last weekend, but forgot to show up and made last-minute plans to go out of town.
"I was aware of the duty. I had made plans to come in. The plans for the weekend changed. . . . The things that I have in my life to remind me to do things broke down," McGraw said. "As far as I'm personally concerned, this won't happen again."
The 23 suspects who were released were being held on charges including assaults with deadly weapons, car thefts, narcotics, domestic crimes and rapes.
According to a 1991 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, suspects who are in custody without an arrest warrant cannot be held for more than 48 hours. They could be held longer if proper papers are signed by a judge indicating that there was probable cause that the inmate committed the crime.
In Fresno County, judges take turns working the weekends to sign such forms.
Last weekend's incident was not the first time officers had to release suspects because proper papers were not signed on time, Police Chief Ed Winchester said.
Thirteen inmates had to be released in July after a judge failed to report for weekend duty, and five people had to be released from jail two weeks ago because the court fax machine was out of order, Winchester said.
Court administrator Linda Reed confirmed that the fax machine had a malfunction, but said it has since been replaced.
"I think they need to pay more attention to getting these judges down here on weekends," Winchester said.
Stephen Kane, Fresno County's presiding judge, did not say what action he would take against McGraw. He said the law enforcement officials could have called other judges to get the papers signed during those weekends.
"I'm dealing with it in my own way. I'm not at liberty to say. I don't think it's a disciplinary situation," Kane said.
Winchester said his department will try to rearrest the 23 people who were released.