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County Public Defender challenges policy barring bail hearings during pandemic
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County Public Defender challenges policy barring bail hearings during pandemic

A man arrested on simple methamphetamine possession charges was booked into Santa Barbara County Jail on March 7 and was set to appear before a judge on March 18, but that hearing was indefinitely vacated and he has remained in jail for nearly a month due to the COVID-19 pandemic

The man, who wasn't identified, has languished in custody for at least 27 days despite no conviction, yet he hasn't been able to appear before a judge for a bail hearing -- a violation of his constitutional rights, according to Deputy Public Defender Lea Villegas, whose office represents the man. 

That prompted the County Public Defender's Office on Monday to filed a challenge to get the man -- and several other nonviolent inmates -- released because of threat of infection from coronavirus. 

The challenge, known as a writ of habeas corpus, was filed Monday with the state's Second Appellate District Court on behalf of several inmates who challenge the Superior Court's current policy of suspending the vast majority of court matters, including bail hearings for pretrial detainees.

Santa Barbara County law enforcement reminding residents to stay home, not forcing

Additionally, the Public Defender's Office alleges the court's action violates a defendant's due process rights and the separation of co-equal branches of government.

Superior Court Judge Michael Carrozzo signed a March 17 administrative order closing most county courtrooms and suspending most court matters as a measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Since then, the court has heard only in-custody arraignment cases and juvenile matters. All other matters -- including traffic, criminal and civil cases -- originally scheduled between March 17 and April 3 must be rescheduled. 

The coronavirus has presented a challenge to public officials across the country, who are being urged to release incarcerated individuals who are considered at-risk for the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed individuals over the age of 65 and those of any age with underlying medical conditions to be at risk. 

Following Carrozzo's order, County Public Defender Tracy Macuga urged the release of inmates at-risk for coronavirus who are unable to practice CDC-recommended guidelines of social distancing and proper hygiene. 

Inmates can only be released with an agreement between the District Attorney's and Public Defender's offices. 

At least 50 were identified as prioritized for release, but only five people have been secured for release based on such an agreement, Villegas said. 

Macuga said that she has no choice but to file the writ after negotiations failed and added that keeping pretrial detainees locked up during the pandemic is "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Only two inmates have been tested for the coronavirus, with negative results, said County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Raquel Zick. 

"Our local judges have locked us out of the courthouse and sanctioned keeping our clients locked inside of cages indefinitely rendering them vulnerable to infection," Macuga said. "We are talking about people who are awaiting trial, presumed innocent, and who are only in custody because they cannot afford to bail out." 

District Attorney Joyce Dudley wasn't able to comment on the writ, but previously said public safety and justice for all are her highest priorities if she is ever called to consider releasing inmates. 

The Public Defender’s challenge comes two days after the California Judicial Council unanimously voted to dramatically restrict speedy trial rights for all people in California.

Coronavirus has even made it difficult for County public defenders to meet and confer with clients. 

Jail visitations were suspended on March 14, meaning attorneys aren't able to meet with defendants, Villegas said. 

Instead, attorneys must meet with their clients at the courthouse. At the Santa Maria courthouse, attorneys meet with clients downstairs in a booth that separates them with a pane of glass, Villegas said. 

They meet again in the courtroom, although they must maintain social distancing, or six feet of separation, as a measure to avoid becoming infected with coronavirus, she added. 

Coronavirus Series: Local impact and reaction to COVID-19 on the Central Coast

We are working hard to get answers about the impact and reaction to the coronavirus in Santa Barbara County, this is a collection of those stories. Do you have a question about coronavirus in Santa Barbara County? The Santa Maria Times news staff will work to answer your questions. Post them to our Facebook page, or email MCooley@SantaMariaTimes.com.  You can support the work of local journalists working hard in your hometown by signing up for a News+ Membership online

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