Friday, November 5, 2010
Long Ride to Courthouse Not Good Cause for Continuance—S.C.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
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, did not constitute good cause for a continuance of a felony trial, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
“Because...the lack of any judge or courtroom available to bring this case to trial within the statutory period resulted from chronic court congestion attributable to the state, the trial court properly concluded that good cause did not exist under [Penal Code] section 1382 to delay defendant’s trial,” Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote for the court.
The justices unanimously reversed a lower panel’s decision to reinstate an information against the defendant, Firme Hajjaj. The Fourth District Court of Appeal, Div. One, ruled last year that there was good cause to extend the time in which to bring Hajjaj to trial on a charge of transporting methamphetamine for sale.
Sec. 1382 requires dismissal if a 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 experienced a severe backlog of criminal cases in recent years as the result, it has been argued, 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.
The backlog has been largely cleared up in recent times, using retired judges and judges assigned from other counties. But the appellate courts have had to deal with residual issues, as in last week’s ruling in People v. Engram, 10 S.O.S. 6047.
The court held in that case that 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 justices upheld the dismissal of a burglary charge.
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 Judge Thomas 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.
The Court of Appeal, reversing, 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 George, in his opinion for the high court, agreed with the trial judge that a last-day case cannot be “brought to trial” unless it is possible for all of the necessary participants to be present in the trial courtroom that day.
“A courtroom that cannot be reached by the parties prior to the close of business is for practical and legal purposes unavailable for bringing the accused to trial,” the chief justice wrote.
Nor can the difficult state of affairs that existed in Riverside Superior Court at the time be considered an “exceptional circumstance,” George said. A chronic lack of courtrooms to try “run of the mill” criminal cases was not exceptional, he said, it had become “routine.”
The chief justice elaborated:
“At the hearing conducted in the late afternoon of the last permissible day to bring the case to trial, the prosecutor challenged the court concerning the availability of any courtrooms or judges to try the five last-day cases then on the court’s calendar, suggesting, among other examples, that the calendar court consider recalling any criminal case from a trial court if that case was not subject to dismissal for delay; assigning the last-day cases to criminal court judges handling pre-preliminary-hearing negotiated dispositions or to judges assigned to the mental health court or the drug court; or assigning the cases to civil court judges hearing probate or family court matters, or to judges hearing traffic cases.”
Neither the trial judge nor the chief justice seemed impressed with those suggestions, or with the idea that the presiding judge or temporary judges be assigned to the calendar courts so that those judges would be available for trials, an issue addressed in Engram.
Citing his own opinion in that case, George wrote:
“[T]he state bears the duty of supplying judicial resources sufficient to bring defendants to trial within the statutory period. Extended distances and lengthy travel time between a court’s calendar department and remote trial departments are circumstances that confront court administrators attempting to fulfill this duty. Thus geography and travel time, being constant obstacles in a large county, are conditions for which court administrators must plan. The neglect of the state in not providing resources adequate to enable the Riverside court to bring cases to trial in a timely manner in the face of these routine, consistent, predictable obstacles represents a ‘fault or neglect of the state.’”
The case was argued in the Supreme Court by Riverside Deputy District Attorney Matt Reilly for the prosecution, Douglas G. Benedon of Benedon & Serlin in Woodland Hills for the defendant, and Riverside Deputy Public Defender Joseph J. Martinez, whose office filed an amicus brief supporting the defendant. Los Angeles Public Defender Michael Judge’s office filed an amicus brief as well.
The case is People v. Hajjaj, 10 S.O.S. 6221.
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