Riverside Superior Court has dismissed over 200 criminal cases because they were not brought to trial before a legal deadline. The Riverside District Attorney’s Office has criticized the dismissals, saying precedent allows the cases to be prosecuted at a later date, and that the dismissals were optional. Presiding Judge John Monterosso explicitly disagreed with that description, and said it is a settled fact that they had to dismiss the cases.
“The 200 includes both misdemeanor and felony offenses, and mostly involve domestic violence charges.”Riverside County District Attorney’s Office
Under California Law, criminal cases must be dismissed if they have not gone to trial 60 days after their arraignment. That time can extend if the judge finds “good cause” to delay the trial. During the COVID-19 pandemic, then-Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye imposed multiple executive orders that extended that deadline past the 60 days mark. The last of the orders ended on Oct. 7, but the court still had outstanding cases.
Pandemic or resources
Both the DA’s Office and Monterosso attributed the backlog to the pandemic, but Monterosso said the origin of the problem rests on Riverside County’s historic lack of judicial resources.
In-person court proceedings were limited, and jury trials were suspended, during the pandemic, the DA’s Office said. Even when court resumed, it was difficult to keep trial courts fully operational because judges, staff, jurors and court users could go into quarantine, Monterosso wrote.
“25% of Riverside County jail inmates had been awaiting trial for more than one year, 177 inmates had been waiting trial for more than two years, 32 inmates were awaiting trial for more than four years and one inmate was waiting for eight years.”Judicial Council of California
The court adapted by mandating settlement departments, sending civil judges to hear criminal trials, designating some departments to hear criminal trials, assigning newly appointed judges to criminal departments, using retired judges and immediately using a trial courtroom if it suddenly becomes usable, Monterosso wrote.
Monterosso wrote that even beyond the pandemic-related issues, Riverside Superior Court has never had enough judges to handle its caseload.
The court needs 115 judicial officers, but has only 90 funded positions, he wrote. The court has 3.7 judicial officers per 100,000 residents, while the state average is 11.4 officers per 100,000 residents, he said.
“While every court in the state may have experienced similar backlogs at times, Riverside County is uniquely challenged in managing such a backlog due to a decadeslong shortage of judges,” Monterosso wrote.
Despite this, Riverside Superior Court has conducted 368 criminal jury trials and 94 civil trials since the pandemic began, Monterosso wrote.
San Bernardino Superior Court has not had to dismiss any cases after the legal deadline, spokesperson Julie Van Hook said.
“Good cause” to dismiss
After the executive order expired on Oct. 7, Riverside Superior Court began dismissing cases.
They dismissed 200 cases by Oct. 24, according to the DA’s Office. The DA’s Office said the 200 includes both misdemeanor and felony offenses, and mostly involve domestic violence charges.
How many of the cases are felony is not clearly stated. One case is a robbery, and another is an assault, the DA’s Office said.
The office claimed California’s Court of Appeal ruled that a delay caused by the pandemic would be “good cause” to hold a case for a later trial date, and said the dismissals have been optional.
“Rather than granting the prosecution a brief continuance until a trial courtroom becomes available, judges have chosen to dismiss criminal cases and release the accused perpetrators who have been charged by the DA’s Office,” the DA’s statement says.
Monterosso disagreed in his letter Oct. 25. A decision to hold the case for good cause is individualized for each case, he said.
“However, it is settled law that backlogs due to a chronic shortage of judges is not good cause to continue a criminal case,” Monterosso wrote.
Chronic issue or exceptional circumstance
Appellate rulings provided by both Riverside Superior Court and the District Attorney’s Office show good cause to delay a trial exists when there is an exceptional circumstance such as a pandemic, but not when a court experiences chronic understaffing.
When requested, Monterosso cited the 2010 California Supreme Court case People v. Engram (S176983).
The Supreme Court ruling in the Engram case cited a 2008 Judicial Council report that said 25% of Riverside County jail inmates had been awaiting trial for more than one year, 177 inmates had been waiting trial for more than two years, 32 inmates were awaiting trial for more than four years and one inmate was waiting for eight years.
Riverside Superior Court’s problems “arose from a combination of factors that created a criminal caseload the court could not handle in a timely manner with the system and resources then in place,” the report said.
The Riverside County District Attorney at the time increased the caseload by placing restrictions on plea bargaining, and enforcing a heavy charging policy, the report said. To deal with the caseload, the court reprioritized its civil courtrooms to handle criminal cases and brought in retired judges, while the Chief Justice assigned judges from outside the county to the court.
The defendant in the case was charged with attempted premediated murder and first degree murder. His conviction in his initial trial was overturned, his retrial was declared a mistrial and his third trial date was delayed by the prosecutor’s inability to handle the case with his other cases, followed by a family emergency. Although they were ready for trial on the last day before the deadline, there was no available courtroom to hold the trial, and the judge dismissed the case.
The District Attorney appealed, saying the backlog gave good cause to delay the case. The Court of Appeal disagreed.“(T)he applicable California statutes do not require a chronically underfunded and understaffed court such as the Riverside Superior Court…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 calendar congestion that produced the circumstance in which the numerous last-day criminal cases pending in the superior court exceeded the resources available to the court unquestionably constituted a chronic condition. It cannot properly be characterized as an ‘exceptional circumstance,’” the ruling said.
The District Attorney’s Office offered appellate cases since the pandemic.
One case, Hernandez-Valenzuela and Torres v. The People (A163992 & A163996) referenced the Engram case. The March 3 appellate ruling said that good cause exists if there is a backlog due to a sudden unexpected circumstance, such as the pandemic, but not if the backlog is due to a chronic understaffing of a court, as in Riverside County. The Court of Appeal concluded that the petitioner’s cases were backlogged in San Francisco Superior Court due to the pandemic, and not from a chronic understaffing, and good cause could be found to delay the trial.
The office also provided the Aug. 11 ruling in Elias v. The People (D079425). In that case, the court ruled San Diego Superior Court acted appropriately when it found good cause to continue a trial because of a pandemic-related backlog. That ruling said courts have recognized health quarantines to prevent the spread of infectious diseases are good cause to delay a trial.
“Given the unique and unprecedented circumstances caused by the global public health emergency, courts must exercise their inherent power to manage and prioritize their cases to work through the backlog,” the ruling said.
By pandemic or understaffing
The District Attorney’s Office argued in a template court document provided to Follow Our Courts that Riverside Superior Court’s congestion was caused by the pandemic, not by understaffing.
They cited court statistics which showed felony trials dropped from 394 in 2019 to 256 in 2020 and 87 in 2021. Misdemeanor trials dropped from 186 to 116 to 40 in the same years. Two thousand fewer felony cases reached a conclusion in 2020 than in 2019. Prosecutors also argued in the motion that the lack of trials also led to a lack of plea deals, because upcoming trials speed up negotiations.
“The statistics also demonstrate that the reduction in resources provided to this Court since the end of the Strike Force era at issue in Engram is also not the cause of the current congestion,” the document reads.
It is likely these dismissals will be appealed.