Public Defender Files Writ Challenging Court's Refusal

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Source: Public Defender's Office

The Public Defender’s Office filed a writ of habeas corpus [Monday] challenging the Santa Barbara County Superior Court’s current policy that bars any hearings for the release of persons held in county jail pre-trial and only allows persons to be released from custody if the prosecution agrees to release. The Public Defender’s Office alleges that the Court’s action deprives in-custody clients of their due process rights and is a violation of the separation of powers doctrine. 

Attorneys for the petitioners, Sean Rodriguez, Isael Elenes, and Christopher Huntfox filed emergency motions asking that the court set hearings to consider their release or a bail reduction in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic.  The Santa Barbara Superior Court rejected the defendants’ requests to calendar their cases.  The Court has mandated that it will only consider pre-trial release for those defendants where there is a stipulation agreement by the prosecution and defense.  Since March 18, 2020, the Public Defender’s Office has attempted to file dozens of release motions on behalf of clients being held in custody and who cannot afford bail.  All of these motions have been rejected by the Court.

“In our justice system, the Superior Court is supposed to be an impartial arbiter.  Right now, it has handed over all of its discretion to release our clients to the prosecutor, a party that is biased against our clients,” said Public Defender Tracy Macuga.  “The Court’s decision gives the prosecution the keys to the courthouse and all but guarantees that hundreds of pre-trial detainees will continue to languish in unsanitary and dangerous conditions.”

The Public Defender’s challenge to the Superior Court comes two days after the California Judicial Council unanimously voted to dramatically restrict speedy trial rights for all people in California.  The deadline for an arraignment, or a first court appearance after an arrest, was extended from 48 hours to 7 days.  The timeframe allowed for a preliminary hearing, or a probable cause hearing, in felony cases was extended from 10 court days to 30 court days, or 6 full weeks. The Judicial Council’s actions follow the March 23, 2020, order by California Supreme Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye that suspended all jury trials for 60 days and added 60 days to existing speedy trial right deadlines. For misdemeanors the deadline for a speedy jury trial was extended from 30 calendar days to 90 days, and for felony trials from 60 calendar days to 120 days.

At a time when public health experts are calling for jail populations to be reduced to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 infections, this action will cause more pre-trial detainees who cannot afford bail to remain in custody at the Santa Barbara County Jail for longer periods of time. 

“We are not talking about people who are sitting in jail because they’ve been convicted of serious or violent offenses.  We are talking about people who are awaiting trial, presumed innocent, and who are only sitting in jail because they cannot afford to bail out,” said Macuga.  “If you are rich and have the money to afford bail, then this is a non-issue.”

Public Defender Macuga previously called for the jail to reduce its population due to the fact that jail conditions do not allow for social distancing or the necessary hygiene to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.  Since then the Public Defender’s Office has worked with the Sheriff’s Office to secure the release of inmates who were post-sentence or post-plea and had upcoming release or sentencing dates. 

“Our office has been trying to negotiate with prosecutors to try to release people because of the danger of infection in jail,” said Macuga.  “However, when those negotiations fail, we have no remedy.  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.  It is a pre-trial punishment of a cruel and unusual nature that is being imposed upon the poorest citizens of our county.” 

The Santa Barbara Public Defender’s Office was established in 1969.  Our mission is to zealously protect the rights, liberties and dignity of all persons in Santa Barbara County and maintain the integrity and fairness of the American Justice System by providing the finest legal representation in the cases entrusted to us through compassionate and innovative advocacy with care and respect for our clients.

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RHS Apr 03, 2020 01:17 PM
Public Defender Files Writ Challenging Court's Refusal

The role of the public defender is to represent indigent clients with the industry and talent that is available to affluent people. Anyone criticizing this effort because they think it is bad policy if it succeeds has a need for some civics lessons. Should the attorney stop following client request and legal ethics because they (or any lawyer) thinks a better result would be to deny the motion or lawsuit we have totally lost the idea of presumption of innocence and the burden on the government to prove its case. If every lawyer is a mini-me judge why even have judicial process at all?

a-1585931696 Apr 03, 2020 09:34 AM
Public Defender Files Writ Challenging Court's Refusal

I suspect the Public Defender's office could care less about COVID and more about getting their suspects off and out of any sentencing. I have a good friend who retired as a PD for the city of Santa Monica after 25 years of service; he often lamented being a PD as he could barely live with himself knowing he was getting criminals released back into society on technicalities when he knew they were guilty. Being pressured to be "morally correct" according to other people's standards makes everyone afraid that they won't be seen as a "nice person" or as a cruel, heartless individual. And that is one of the main reasons our justice system has become a joke, especially in very liberal states with very liberal judges.

RHS Apr 04, 2020 04:35 PM
Public Defender Files Writ Challenging Court's Refusal

Nice that you corrected your report. But your acquaintance sounds like a jerk. Why would he do a job he despised? Or did he just say what the people around him wanted to hear? And 6:06 p.m., I have known dozens of prosecutors who could care less about justice than pressuring people to take a deal "to good to refuse." Threatening greater consequences if the defendant litigated. Is this admirable? Our adversary system has stood us in good stead for centuries. I hope we never listen to rhetoric such as you offer and go to some form of fascist "truth finding."

a-1586018711 Apr 04, 2020 09:45 AM
Public Defender Files Writ Challenging Court's Refusal

RHS, ok, let me correct myself on a technicality you mentioned. He worked for the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office but was ASSIGNED to the Santa Monica courts his entire career. His wife, by the way, was a District Attorney, assigned her entire career to the metro L.A. courts, which made for some interesting dinner conversations from what he told me. So I hope that satisfies you and your accusation that this was made up, don't jump to your own conclusions, and don't call it "mythological crap." I speak from the facts he told me himself. Do you think he was making up his feelings of guilt and shame up and lying to me then and now? No, he had ethical and moral issues regarding getting his clients off on technicalities. He also felt guilty and terrible when a couple of his clients over the years committed suicide when he didn't get them off. Pathos, indeed.

a-1585962401 Apr 03, 2020 06:06 PM
Public Defender Files Writ Challenging Court's Refusal

I worked for the PD in Santa Monica as a Secretary in the 1980’s and also West L.A.
It is as your friend describes; furthermore, the PD’s seemed more interested in getting their clients off for any frivolity. It was a game to them. Being on the inside and observing this was disgusting to say the least.

RHS Apr 03, 2020 01:22 PM
Public Defender Files Writ Challenging Court's Refusal

9:34 a.m. Your claim is impossible to be true for the simple reason that the city of Santa Monica does not have a public defender's office. It has never had such an office (at least not in the last 60 years). Why do you folks make up such mythological crap? Can't you actually understand the system, real world, historical perspective and then speak to the issues with facts from that reality? Or is it just easier to lie.

SB805101 Apr 02, 2020 03:25 PM
Public Defender Files Writ Challenging Court's Refusal

If released, I wonder how many of them are homeless? If homeless, where will they go? These are inmates who possibly have the virus with no symptoms, as I'm sure many were already exposed within the jail.
Do they go to the streets and possibly infect the public? Is the Public defenders office getting these people hotels?

a-1585862266 Apr 02, 2020 02:17 PM
Public Defender Files Writ Challenging Court's Refusal

The Court needs to start thinking ahead ASAP, this is a very short-sighted policy and I worry it will exacerbate the spread of COVID19 in the long run not in the jail, but outside of it! Think about it - if (when) an outbreak occurs in the jail, are they going to let low-level offenders out then? If that option is even remotely on the table, and I bet it is, they are doing a disservice to the public by keeping these people locked up now, all but guaranteeing their infection with COVID19 before an inevitable release into the community. This isn't just about the inmates, this is a potential local health issue if the Court doesn't start thinking long-term.

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