Orange County’s first attempt to hold court hearings after a brief closure due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus descended into “complete chaos” Thursday, with packed courtrooms seeming to fly in the face of recent guidance offered by health officials, some of the county’s top legal officials said.
On Monday, the Orange County Superior Court system announced the closure of all courthouses until March 27, with exceptions for emergency matters. But an attempt to use five courtrooms in Santa Ana to hold arraignments and other proceedings quickly overwhelmed the system, officials said.
“We were not following the state guidelines for public health. We were not following the federal guidelines for public health,” Orange County Public Defender Sharon Petrosino said. “It was wall-to-wall people, everywhere you looked.”
Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer said a system that would have allowed hearings to be conducted by video malfunctioned for half the day. Poor communication from court officials, who Spitzer said attempted to pack too much onto Thursday’s court calendar, led to long delays and heavy foot traffic at a time when health officials have urged people to limit contact with one another.
“They got ahead of themselves. They didn’t communicate well with the private defense bar. They didn’t have instructions up on their website … so today was complete chaos,” he said.
“Social distancing?” Spitzer quipped later. “It was actually social consolidation.”
Petrosino called the situation a “catastrophe” and faulted court officials for trying to mash “three days” worth of cases into one. She also expressed concern for defendants in custody, saying at least 140 county inmates were held in close quarters in the building while waiting hours to appear.
“I worry about two things. I worry about my clients … and I worry about my staff,” Petrosino said. “None of those people were protected today by the court system.”
A Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to Petrosino’s claim about the treatment of in-custody defendants.
Court spokesman Kostas Kalaitzidis declined to address specific allegations of poor planning or conditions, but in an email said officials were scrambling to deal with an unprecedented situation.
“We are working very hard to provide access to justice, preserve everyone’s constitutional rights and do our part to provide safety and security to all residents of Orange County,” he said.
Photos taken in the Santa Ana courthouse showed attorneys wearing masks and filling hallways in crowds, at a time when California leaders are urging people to stay home and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising people to avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 to limit the spread of the virus.
Staycie Sena, a criminal defense lawyer, said private attorneys were not notified that hearings would be taking place in Santa Ana until 4 p.m. Wednesday. The lack of communication from court officials and heavy backlog of cases created an unnecessary and dangerous situation, she said.
“It’s not just the clients and the court personnel who are being put at risk,” she said. “You have to choose between your bar card and the safety and health of your family. So it puts us in an impossible position.”
The fiasco in Orange County comes as law enforcement officials continue to try and balance public safety and the scheduling of necessary court hearings with statewide and national efforts to limit the spread of the virus, which has killed 19 people in California and infected nearly 1,000 people.
Earlier this week, the Los Angeles County Superior Court announced it would shut down for three days and effectively halt criminal trials for a month. The nation’s largest court system is scheduled to reopen for limited matters on Friday, and some attorneys fear similar chaos.