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California

L.A. County courts launch video hearings during coronavirus crisis

Los Angeles Superior Court
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Miguel Espinoza holds video arraignments in his L.A. courtroom at Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center on April 21.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County courts launched a program Tuesday to conduct arraignments via video, the latest in a series of actions to reduce traffic in the nation’s largest court system amid the coronavirus crisis.

The program, which will involve 32 courtrooms in 17 courthouses from the Antelope Valley to downtown L.A., aims to cut down on prisoner transfers and promote social distancing as concerns continue to mount over how quickly the virus can spread in confined spaces.

A number of L.A. County Sheriff’s Department employees, jail staff and inmates have contracted the coronavirus in recent weeks. Balancing the need to maintain essential court functions with the safety of attorneys, judges, prosecutors and defendants has challenged the criminal justice system since March, when confirmed cases began to climb.

Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile said Tuesday that the video program came together in the last two weeks.

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“COVID-19 has led to extraordinary changes to how the world and how the Los Angeles Superior Court conducts business,” he said. “Literally overnight, our court has had to reconfigure procedures which typically take place in person.”

Defendants must consent to the video arraignments, but can still opt to appear in person. The remote hearings began Tuesday afternoon in downtown L.A.'s notoriously crowded arraignment court, Department 30, where deputies had blocked off several rows in the gallery with caution tape to enforce social distancing.

A large TV monitor on the left-hand side of the room displayed multiple screens showing defense attorneys and defendants appearing through the online conferencing software Webex. A man arrested last week on suspicion of attacking a security guard in Mid-Wilshire made an appearance from the East L.A. sheriff’s station. The hearing was over and done in 10 minutes after a brief argument to reduce his bail was denied by Judge Miguel Espinoza.

Under the new program, only the sitting judge, a judicial assistant and court reporter must be present for arraignments. Prosecutors and defense attorneys have the option to appear remotely, which several public defenders did Tuesday afternoon. Only two dozen people were in the courtroom, and many of them were media or court media relations personnel on hand for the program’s debut.

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The move is part of a wider effort to limit exposure to the coronavirus inside L.A. County’s sprawling court system. Last month, Brazile barred public access to the courts and delayed for 90 days all misdemeanor hearings for defendants who are out of custody. Marquee trials, including the murder prosecution of New York real estate scion Robert Durst, have also been delayed.

Ann Donlan, a court spokeswoman, said the effort came at minimal cost to the county. A few courtrooms needed to be outfitted with cameras, and the court had to buy a number of licenses for the Webex software. Donlan said allowing the public remote access to court proceedings could be considered in the future, but had no specific plans to offer Tuesday.


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