SALINAS — A group of criminal defense attorneys have signed a letter sharply criticizing Monterey County Superior Court administrators, including Presiding Judge Julie Culver, for what they say is a dangerous lack of adherence to county COVID-19 protocols.
Court officials vehemently deny the accusations and produced numerous pages of documents outlining the safety precautions instituted in the courts.
Phillip Crawford is a criminal defense attorney with the Crawford Law Firm in Salinas and one of the 10 defense attorneys signing off on a Jan. 8 letter accusing Monterey County Superior Court of a “reckless disregard” for the health and safety of those entering county courtrooms.
“Not only has the court failed to follow the directives of the Monterey County Health Department, the California Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control, the court has failed to enforce its own protocols,” the letter reads. “The court has failed to be forthcoming and transparent with the community about the risks to one’s health and to the health of others involved in coming to court.”
The letter was copied to two state senators, two state Assembly members, state and county health officials, Monterey County supervisors, the governor and to Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, the chief justice of the California Supreme Court.
Court Executive Officer Chris Ruhl said he and Culver take safeguarding those entering the courthouse very seriously. He provided a list of protocols established at the beginning of the pandemic and then modified as needed to address new mandates from the county and state health departments.
Every person entering the facility is screened for symptoms and temperatures are checked, Ruhl said. Plexiglass dividers have been installed in courtrooms and court clerk areas, and the courts enforce physical distancing and face-covering requirements. Additionally, video cameras have been installed in every courtroom to provide remote appearances when possible, he said.
“In addition, protocols requiring and marking court spaces for social distancing were put in place, both inside and outside the courthouses,” Ruhl said. “Touchless hand sanitizing stations were installed throughout courthouse facilities and heightened daily disinfection and sanitization procedures were put in place.”
Perhaps the most dangerous setting for virus transmission is in the jury selection process, as it has sometimes been compared with a cattle call. But Ruhl said the courts have established an entirely new system to protect potential jurors in the selection process.
On Wednesday in an interview with the Monterey Herald, Crawford said that during the past nine months masks have not been required in courtrooms, 6-foot distancing is not enforced, crowds are allowed to congregate in the hallways and elevator signage indicating only one passenger at a time is routinely ignored.
The court was notified of the concerns several months ago in writing but the responses were “evasive and, frankly, disingenuous,” Crawford said. “It came across as, ‘We can do what we want.’ Think about the symbolism in that — a defendant comes into court and is told to follow the rules by someone who is not following the rules.”
In August, Judge Culver replied to Crawford’s earlier letter by noting the precautions the court had implemented and that there are times when judges must remove a face covering in order to carry out court proceedings.
“The California Department of Public Health does not construe its Guidance Concerning the Use of Face Coverings to limit judges’ inherent authority to ensure the safe and orderly conduct of proceeding in their own courtrooms,” Culver replied to Crawford in August. “Judges are encouraged to adhere to the guidance when possible but may deviate when needed.”
Crawford argues that the language of the county health order on face coverings does not allow for deviations.
An email sent Wednesday morning to Karen Smith, the public information officer for the Monterey County Health Department, seeking comment on what protocols the department has in its orders regarding courtrooms was not returned Wednesday or Thursday.
Three attorneys have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Crawford’s letter, and one of them, Eugene Martinez, died from the disease on Nov. 6. There is no evidence connecting Martinez’s death with any appearances he may have made in a courtroom. In many cases, it is impossible to know where an individual might have contracted the virus.
If someone does test positive, Ruhl said the court has “in place protocols for handling staff, justice partners, jurors or others who notify the court of positive COVID tests.”
The Monterey County Jail and state prison facilities in the county have encountered COVID-19 outbreaks but it’s unknown if any cases are connected to court appearances.
While some judges were called out by name in the letter as rarely wearing masks, there were also ones who took the health order seriously. Judge Andrew Liu has never shown up to court without a mask, Crawford said, and in one case explained to a jury after deliberations that the sudden absence of one of the attorneys was due to a spouse testing positive.
“That’s the decent thing to do,” Crawford said.
Other attorneys, in addition to Crawford, who signed the letter were Kimberly Ann Barnett, Julie Crawford, Jessica Dumas, Kelly Brooke Duncan, Bret Hartmann, Steven Rease Jr., Jevin Hernandez, Miguel Hernandez and Maribel Penaloza.
What the attorneys want is for the court requiring and enforcing the health order protocol of wearing a mask indoors, postpone jury trials until it is reasonably safe to conduct them and have the court provide more transparency when someone tests positive within the restrictions provided for in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, most commonly known as HIPAA.
“If people can’t spend time with their grandchildren, why is it OK to be locked in a room with strangers?” Crawford said.
Contributed by local news sources