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New court rules drops bail, pushes civil cases out

While the wheels of justice have always turned slowly, Colusa County Superior Court has all but ground to a halt, now that SARS-CoV-2 has impacted every aspect of life.

In the interest of meeting the state’s health directives to “shelter at home,” while still providing the public with due process, Presiding Judge Jeffrey A Thompson said that felony cases and restraining orders would take precedence over other proceedings until things get back to normal and the orders are lifted.

“Everything changes every day,” Thompson said, during last week’s criminal proceedings.

The Judicial Council, the policymaking body of the California courts, approved 11 new temporary emergency rules on April 6, among them adopting the new “get out of jail free” rule that sets bail statewide at $0 for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies.

State court officials said the new rule is intended to reduce jail populations, although some believe progressive state leaders have been fighting for this “one size fits all” approach to criminal justice reform long before the virus emerged in California.

Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, immediately condemned the Judicial Council’s decision on social media.

“It appears to me that this crisis is being used by some to push agendas,” Gallagher said.

Deputy Sheriff’s Associations across the state also condemned the new bail schedule, as well as orders to release inmates early, and said the orders risk the safety of the public.

Judge Thompson had already been presiding under the Judicial Council’s first emergency orders March 28, the first since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Those orders allow the court the flexibility to maintain some essential services, such as criminal arraignments, domestic violence restraining orders, juvenile detention hearings, felony preliminary hearings, so long social distancing directives are maintained.

Thompson said court trials that had been planned for May, June, and most of July will be rescheduled to a later date because the court does not have the ability to perform the jury selection process, which usually calls 60 people or more to be called to court at one time.

“We don’t have the facilities to keep people six feet apart,” he said.

Thompson said he does not expect any trial to be held before July 29, although that may be extended if social distancing requirements are extended past that time.

Some of the other actions that went into effect immediately under the Judicial Council’s new emergency orders include extending the statute of limitations governing civil actions.

Thompson said the entire civil calendar for Colusa County would be “cleared” to make room for criminal proceedings.

The Judicial Council’s new emergency orders also allow defendants to appear in court through remote technology.

Public Defender Albert Smith said the procedure goes against the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which provides that a person accused of a crime has the right to confront a witness against him or her in a criminal action.

Colusa County Superior Court will remain closed to the public until May 4, with limited exceptions. To further reduce the number of individuals in the courthouse, entrance shall be limited to those individuals conducting legitimate business.

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