Thursday, October 7, 2010
Justices Appear Skeptical of Argument Justifying Trial Delay
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday grilled counsel on whether the inability of parties and counsel to travel from the criminal calendar court in Riverside to an available courtroom 76 miles away before it closed for the day, on the last statutory day for trial, constituted good cause for a continuance.
Sitting in Fresno for the second day of a special session, the justices appeared unconvinced that the time required to travel the distance between the cities of Riverside and Indio was an exceptional circumstance justifying delay of the trial.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal’s Div. One in 2009 reinstated an information charging Firme Hajjaj with one felony count of transporting methamphetamine for sale that Riverside Superior Court Judge Thomas H. Cahraman dismissed based on the lack of a speedy trial.
California has implemented the state and federal constitutional guarantees of a speedy trial to criminal defendants through Penal Code Sec. 1382, which requires dismissal of the charges if the defendant is not “brought to trial” within the period prescribed by the statute, unless “good cause” is shown for the delay.
The Riverside Superior Court has experienced a severe backlog of criminal cases in recent years as the result, some argue, of chronic underfunding, too few judges, the pro forma granting of continuances and a policy by prosecutors against plea deals in certain serious and violent cases.
According to court records, Hajjaj’s counsel and the prosecution indicated on the last day of the statutory speedy trial period that they were ready to go forward, but Cahraman told them: “I seem to be out of courtrooms.”
At approximately 4:15 p.m., the judge told the parties that a courtroom had just become available in Indio, but determined that sending the matter there would be futile as he estimated the trip would take over an hour and 20 minutes and the courthouse would close before the parties arrived. Concluding that the trial would not “start” under state law without the defendant, defense counsel or an empanelled jury present, even if a prosecutor was there, he denied the prosecution’s request for a continuance and granted Hajjaj’s dismissal motion.
On appeal, Justice Gilbert Nares cited the county’s large area and population, and concluded that Hajjaj would not suffer any prejudice from a one-day delay in commencement of the trial.
But Hajjaj’s counsel, Woodland Hills attorney Douglas G. Benedon, maintained yesterday that there was no way a trial could “start” without the defendant present. He agreed with Chief Justice Ronald M. George’s suggestion that chronic underfunding was not an unexpected event, and contended that the answer to a shortage of resources was not to deny defendants the right to a speedy trial.
Riverside Deputy Public Defender Joseph J. Martinez, arguing as amicus curiae, asserted that the remoteness of the Indio courthouse did not cause the congestion that led to the delay of the trial. He also noted that adoption of a standard equating remoteness to good cause could lead to different rules around the state based on the geographic size and population of each county.
Riverside Deputy District Attorney Matt D. Reilly contended that good cause for the delay was present because a courthouse was actually available in Indio when Cahraman denied the continuance request, but his arguments were met by skepticism from the justices.
Justice Carol A. Corrigan told Reilly it was “illusory” to conclude the courthouse was available if the defendant could not get there in time, commenting: “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.”
The case is People v. Hajjaj, S175307.
Yesterday’s special session of the Supreme Court took place at the Fifth District Court of Appeal Courthouse, and high school students from counties in the district were again on hand to observe the proceedings. As they did Tuesday, the justices pressed counsel to summarize arguments for the benefit of the audience before going into detail.
The justices also appeared unaware of the sensitivity of the microphones in the courthouse, and some of their personal asides to one another were picked up during a live broadcast of the proceedings on television and on the Internet by public affairs cable television network The California Channel.
In other news yesterday, the high court heard arguments in Conservatorship of Whitley, S175855, on whether a prevailing party’s non-financial personal interest in public interest litigation should bar an award of attorney fees under the private attorney general statute.
Virginia Maldonado—conservator for her developmentally disabled adult brother, Roy Whitley—sought an award of attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 1021.5 after she successfully opposed a request by the government agency overseeing his care to move him from the regional center where he had lived for 40 years to a smaller community facility.
Under the statute, a successful litigant may have attorneys fees paid by the opposing party if the litigation confers significant benefits on the public and if “the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement are such as to make the award appropriate.”
The California Supreme Court concluded that the only means by which Maldonado’s objection to the North Bay Regional Center’s community placement decision could be resolved in the first instance was by invoking the statutorily authorized administrative fair hearing provisions provided under the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act.
However, the First District Court of Appeal later upheld a trial court’s decision denying Maldonado’s nearly-$178,000 fee request.
Maldonado’s counsel, San Francisco attorney Jan Timothy Chilton, told the Supreme Court yesterday that the statute was not enacted as a result of the absence of litigants willing to bring suit, but due to the absence of attorneys willing to do so on their behalf.
But NBRC counsel Joseph Peter Mascovich of San Francisco argued that even if an important public right was at issue, a significant benefit was not conferred upon the public or a large class of persons, and he contended that the financial burden imposed on Maldonado was not out of proportion to her personal interest in blocking her brother’s transfer.
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