Keeping Courthouses Clear of COVID-19

Seeking to keep Los Angeles County courthouses clear of COVID-19, the Board of Supervisors unanimously called for stronger health and safety measures to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus.

“Enhancing our existing health and safety measures is critical – not only to slow the spread of COVID-19, but also to protect the constitutional and human rights of everyone entering our courthouses, including jurors, counsel and defendants,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, principal author of the motion. “Affording due process should not unnecessarily expose individuals attending mandatory court procedures to serious health risks – especially when those risks can be avoided or mitigated.”

“Court personnel, jurors, lawyers and defendants are all entitled to a courthouse workplace that is as safe as we can possibly make it,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, the motion’s coauthor. “With today’s motion, we are insisting that health and safety procedures be put in place so that all can be protected from exposure to COVID-19 in our courthouses.”

When the courts reopened on July 6th after weeks of closure prompted by COVID-19, the Presiding Judge of the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, began implementing a range of health and safety measures recommended by the LA County Public Defender and endorsed by the LA County Board of Supervisors. Additional measures may be necessary, however, given the recent surge in infections.

”Public Defenders are on the front line of Los Angeles County’s Justice System, and it is now in the era of COVID that our calling as Constitutional Warriors is on full display,” LA County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia said. “Access to justice is enshrined in the 6th amendment and the presumption of innocence; they are the foundation of our criminal justice system. I wholeheartedly support the Board’s motion to strengthen COVID-19 protections in Los Angeles County’s justice system for everyone visiting and working in the County’s courthouses.”

In their motion, Supervisors Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl noted that the LA County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) notified the Public Defender that many of its attorneys may have been exposed to COVID-19 by clients who tested positive for COVID-19 while in jail. In addition, many clients come to Court from jail without being tested beforehand.

On June 26th, the Department of Public Health recommended that LASD stop transporting clients with pending test results. However, given recent changes around testing, opportunities to identify positive asymptomatic in-custody clients prior to transportation to Court has declined. Also complicating matters is inconsistent compliance with the Presiding Judge’s July 6th order requiring social distancing and the wearing of masks in courthouses.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl’s motion instructed the County CEO, in collaboration with the Public Defender, Sheriff, and the Directors of DPH, the Correctional Health Services (CHS) within the Department of Health Services (DHS), the Internal Services Department (ISD), and the Alternate Public Defender (APD), to report back to the Board in 14 days with recommendations on:

  • A pre-screening process, including temperature checks and symptom and exposure questions, for entering courthouses;
  • Hourly patrols to ensure compliance with masking and social distancing protocols;
  • Public health inspections of lockup spaces in every courthouse
  • Whether and when incarcerated individuals should be tested before a court appearance;
  • The feasibility of rapid testing for incarcerated individuals;
  • The feasibility of testing jurors;
  • Expanding video conferencing technology to allow incarcerated individuals access to attorneys, clinicians, and the courts; and
  • Recommending protocols for responding when there is a known positive COVID-19 test from any individual who has been in a courthouse, including how to issue notifications and whether to impose a quarantine.