Tuesday, October 26, 2010
S.C. Upholds Dismissal in Speedy-Trial Controversy
Law Does Not Compel Sending Criminal Cases to Probate, Family Courts—Justices
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The statutory priority given criminal cases does not require that juvenile, family, and probate departments be given over to criminal trials when no other department is available, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Siding with lower courts, the justices affirmed the Riverside Superior Court’s dismissal of a burglary charge against Terrion Marcus Engram.
Engram’s case is one of a number that were dismissed in Riverside County as a result of the court’s chronic backlog of criminal cases, culminating in an inability to try all cases within the time set by law. The backlog was eventually eased by the assignment of 28 judges for various periods of time—some retired, others active judges borrowed from other counties—but not before a dispute arose between the leadership of the court and District Attorney Rod Pacheco over the handling of last-day cases.
Pacheco took the position that under the priority statute, Penal Code Sec. 1050, every available courtroom—including those normally devoted to family, probate, or juvenile matters—had to be utilized for last-day criminal cases if necessary. The court’s administration, on the other hand, said the use of those courtrooms for criminal cases would be impractical and contrary to public policy, a position that was upheld by the court’s Appellate Division and the Court of Appeal in several cases prior to yesterday’s ruling.
One of the court’s judges, Paul Zellerbach, subsequently took a leave of absence to run for district attorney and unseated Pacheco last June. Among the issues he raised was the claim that Pacheco contributed to the backlog by taking cases to trial unnecessarily.
Engram was tried twice on the burglary charge. He was found guilty in the first trial, but the conviction was reversed for instructional error; the second trial resulted in a hung jury in May 2008.
A third trial was set for July 14, 2008, but was postponed several times, with the defendant waiving speedy trial rights through and including Sept. 29, 2008.
Engram’s was one of 18 last-day cases—two felonies and 16 misdemeanors—for which no courtroom was available that day. Judge Helios Hernandez set the cases over for the next day so that defendants could move to dismiss.
Prosecutors objected that there were several alternatives to dismissal—send at least some of the cases to juvenile, probate, or family law courtrooms; assign commissioners or pro tem judges to “vertical calendar departments” whose role was to dispose of criminal cases without trial where possible, freeing those judges to try cases; or declare that the lack of available courtrooms constituted good cause to extend the speedy trial deadline, at least by a day.
Hernandez rejected all of those alternatives.
Juvenile, probate, and family law courts, he explained, protect children and other vulnerable persons whose needs could not be set aside because the county lacked criminal courtrooms. As a practical matter, he added, those courtrooms had no jury boxes.
Shuffling judicial officers would not solve the problem, he added, because using judges to handle the VCD courtrooms was necessary to avoid having to dismiss even more cases. Commissioners and temporary judges, he said, were ill-suited to handle the VCD courts because they lacked the “actual judicial power to cause settlements to occur.”
He also concluded, as had the Appellate Division in a then-recent misdemeanor case, that a lack of courtrooms, at least when the result of a chronic problem as opposed to an unforeseen one, does not constitute good cause for delay past the statutory deadline. He subsequently dismissed the cases.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the dismissal as to Engram in an unpublished opinion. It reached the same conclusion in a published opinion in one of the other cases, but for procedural reasons, the Supreme Court chose to resolve the issue by reviewing Engram’s.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George said the cases were properly dismissed. Contrary to the district attorney’s view, he said, Sec. 1050 establishes a general principle but does not impose an “absolute, inflexible command” that all other court business be set aside to try criminal cases.
Pacheco, he noted, had asserted in his brief to the high court that he was not arguing for a total shutdown of all other departments to handle criminal cases. But the trial judge, Pacheco insisted, abused his discretion by failing to analyze the specific circumstances of the other courts to determine whether at least some of the last-day cases should be given priority.
George reasoned that the trial court was not required to examine the specifics of each case, only to establish “an efficient and cost-effective system for organizing and administering the processing of the many diverse matters pending before it.”
The appellate courts, the chief justice added, should not second-guess the trial courts on how they organize their departments, as long as they do not “shortchange the court’s criminal caseload by creating or maintaining a disproportionately large number of civil as compared to criminal departments.”
At the time of the dismissals in Engram’s and other cases, George noted, Riverside was “utilizing virtually all of the court’s ordinary civil department judges and courtrooms for the trial of criminal cases,” and the process of assigning additional judges to handle the backlog had already begun.
“Under these circumstances — in which the superior court already was granting considerable precedence to the processing of criminal cases over civil cases, and in which it was apparent that the present case was not an isolated last-day criminal matter that reasonably could be accommodated without establishing a precedent that would create an appreciable adverse effect upon the specialized civil departments in question — we agree with the ...Court of Appeal in the present case that the Riverside Superior Court did not violate section 1050 by declining to assign a last-day criminal case for trial in one of the specialized departments handling family law, probate, and juvenile cases.”
George went on to agree with the lower courts that delay resulting from chronic congestion, and the refusal of the trial court to send cases to family law, probate, and juvenile departments, did not constitute good cause to extend the statutory time in which to bring a case to trial.
Suggesting that the district attorney might himself be to blame for the problem, George wrote:
“Although a prosecutor is free, within legal and ethical requirements, to pursue whatever charging and plea-negotiation policies he or she deems appropriate, the applicable California statutes do not require a chronically underfunded and understaffed court such as the Riverside Superior Court either (1) to accommodate last‑day criminal proceedings by devoting an unreasonable or disproportionate share of its resources to ensure that all last-day matters will be tried within the presumptive statutory period, or (2) to continue such trials beyond the presumptive statutory period (rather than dismiss the criminal proceedings) on the premise that the persistent backlog constitutes ‘good cause’ under section 1382 to justify a delay.”
The case is People v. Engram, 10 S.O.S. 6047.
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