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Downtown L.A. court is placed on lockdown after confusion over coronavirus quarantine

The Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center
Some hearings were disrupted at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center after confusion over a coronavirus quarantine.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Fears that an inmate who was supposed to be in quarantine was mistakenly brought to court led to a partial lockdown of the downtown Los Angeles Criminal Justice Center on Friday morning, as concerns about the coronavirus continue to sow discord in the nation’s largest court system, officials with knowledge of the situation said.

A section of the county’s largest courthouse was effectively shut down after concerns grew that an inmate who was supposed to be among 500 under quarantine in the county’s jails was placed in a holding area in the court, according to three officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the matter candidly.

The Sheriff’s Department has placed about 500 inmates under quarantine because they had been housed in a unit where someone exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus. Sheriff Alex Villanueva has said that 45 inmates who tested for the coronavirus had negative results.

A number of hearings were postponed Friday as a result, and court proceedings were “disrupted,” two sources said.

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A law enforcement source told The Times that although the inmate was not displaying symptoms, there was a belief he had come from quarantine housing. The lockdown lasted until it was determined that was not the case, the law enforcement source said.

But by that time a number of cases had already been postponed, and movement of inmates into courtrooms was stopped according to one source, who said the lockdown began around 9 a.m.

The source said at least one bail review hearing had to be postponed as well, a significant problem as the courts, prosecutors and sheriff’s officials are racing to reduce the jail population in the hopes of preventing an outbreak.

“Now who knows when [the attorney] will be able to get their client out,” the source said.

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A spokeswoman for the county’s courts referred questions to the Sheriff’s Department.

In a statement, sheriff’s officials said: “This morning the Criminal Courts Building was placed on lockdown after information was received that a quarantined inmate was sent to court. It was quickly determined that the information was inaccurate and the courts resumed normal operations. The courts resumed normal operations in less than half an hour.”

The confusing episode comes amid sharp division between the judiciary and organizations representing prosecutors, defense attorneys and court staff over the decision to keep courthouses open during the pandemic.

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Earlier this week, Eric Siddall, vice president for the union representing L.A. County deputy district attorneys, blasted Presiding Superior Court Judge Kevin Brazile and other court leaders for disregarding “all the science behind slowing down and defeating this pandemic.”

“The Los Angeles Superior Courts are now the weakest link in government’s response to the coronavirus,” Siddall wrote, adding that open courthouses run the risk of lawyers “inadvertently infecting inmates” and compounding the public health crisis.

Brazile has significantly curtailed the types of proceedings allowed to take place in the county’s courts amid the pandemic, and has limited access to courthouses. All progress reports and status reports for pending criminal matters have also been pushed back an additional 90 days, and misdemeanor cases in which a defendant is not in jail have been delayed 90 days.

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Asked about the union’s letter, Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said she would not be critical of her prosecutors nor of the court, adding that she was listening to the union and in contact with judicial leaders.

“Everyone is scared, and everyone is trying to do their best so that they don’t contract the virus,” Lacey said. “It’s up to all of us to remain calm, not overreact, but. .. do what we can to preclude the spread of the virus.”

Although there have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus among sheriff’s deputies or the ranks of the district attorney’s office, a public defender assigned to the Sylmar juvenile courthouse tested positive for the virus. The courthouse is connected to the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, but no juvenile inmates have tested positive, either, said Kerri Webb, a public information officer for the Los Angeles County probation department.

Nikhil Ramnaney, the president of the union representing county public defenders, said Friday’s episode displayed the court’s continued failing to properly react to the threat of the virus.

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“The court continues to ignore the risk that it places employees, litigants as well as security personnel in by mandating the transfer of hundreds of inmates every day from L.A. County jail for proceedings that are mostly being continued,” he said.


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