The Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office has filed a writ of habeas corpus challenging the Santa Barbara County Superior Court’s current policy of not holding hearings for pretrial release of defendants because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Public Defender Tracy Macuga and Deputy Public Defender Mark Saatjian filed the 143 page document to the California Second District Court of Appeal on Monday. The writ was filed on behalf of Sean Rodriguez, Christopher Huntfox, Isael Elenes, and all Santa Barbara County Jail defendants being held pending trial.
According to a Public Defender’s Office news release, the court only releases defendants from jail if the prosecutor agrees.
Attorneys for Mr. Rodriguez, Mr. Elenes, and Mr. Huntfox filed emergency motions asking the court to set hearings to consider their release from jail or a bail reduction because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“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,” the statement read.
Since March 18, the Public Defender’s Office has tried to file dozens of release motions for defendants being held in jail and for those who cannot afford bail. The Santa Barbara County Superior Court rejected all the motions.
“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,” Ms. Macuga said.
“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,” she said.
The California Judicial Council unanimously voted to extend statutory deadlines for some due process rights during an emergency special meeting on Saturday.
Normally, courts must bring in a defendant for their first court appearance 48 hours after an arrest. The California Judicial Council extended that deadline to seven days.
The judicial council extended the deadline for probable cause hearings in felony cases from 10 court days to six weeks.
On March 23, California Supreme Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye suspended all superior court jury trials for 60 days and added 60 days to existing speedy trial right deadlines because of the coronavirus.
“Our office has been trying to negotiate with prosecutors to try to release people because of the danger of infection in jail. 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,” Ms. Macuga said.