Signs in English and Spanish on the door at the Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office in Santa Maria.
Signs in English and Spanish on the door at the Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office in Santa Maria advise clients about the COVID-19 closure and urge them to call instead. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Most cases at Santa Barbara County Superior Court have been continued at least three weeks due to the coronavirus public health emergency, and defense attorneys have pleaded for the release of some defendants from custody because they are at risk from COVID-19.

Presiding Judge Michael J. Carrozzo signed an administrative order postponing most matters, with plans to notify those with cases scheduled during that time about the rescheduled date.

This means most courtrooms in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria, plus those in Lompoc and Solvang, have closed, with cases continued “to a date yet to be determined after April 3,” Court Executive Officer Darrel Parker said.

Only courtrooms handling criminal arraignments (hearing only in-custody matters) and juvenile cases in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara will remain open.

On Tuesday, the Santa Barbara Public Defender’s Office called for the immediate release of people who are currently detained in the Santa Barbara County Jail and at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.

Inmates cannot take health and safety measures issued by the county Public Health Department order last week, defense attorneys said.

“Our clients are living in close proximity to one another with poor ventilation, lacking the opportunity to self-sanitize and practice social distancing,” Public Defender Tracy Macuga said.  “They are required to eat, sleep, and shower in shared living spaces.”

For hygiene products, indigent inmates in the jail rely on a kit that contains a pencil, a razor, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, and small bar of soap. Inmates receive one kit every seven days.

Those kits include small bars of soap that, with careful use, might last for three showers, defense attorneys said. 

“We are dealing with a public health crisis,” Macuga said. “By releasing vulnerable detainees, who present a low risk of harm to the community, we will allow the jail staff to better implement recommended preventative measure, such social distancing, frequent handwashing, and cleaning of surfaces.

“We are concerned that at its current capacity, we may be placing inmates and jail staff at unnecessary risk, and further endangering our entire community.”

Public defenders contend court closures posed an obstacle to attorneys who are working to get their clients’ cases in front of a judge in order to make a pitch for their release.

“So far we have identified about 40 inmates who are high risk due to a medical conditions or are over 60, people facing misdemeanor charges, and sentenced inmates who have less than 90 days remaining on their sentence,” said Chief Trial Deputy Lea Villegas.

“We cannot bring these requests to the court because the court is refusing to hear anything other than in custody arraignments,” she added.

Michael J. Scott, who leads the North County Conflict Defense Team, also supported releasing some non-violent defendants who may have low bail and meet other requirements.

“I think it’s a good idea in general,” Scott said. “If they have someone positive, things can spread through the jail like wildfire.”

Public defenders expect the number to grow as attorneys go through their cases, and as people continue to be arrested and taken to court in custody.

On Tuesday night, the Sheriff’s Department reported several people associated with the jail had been ordered to self-quarantine due to potential exposure to COVID-19.

While defense attorneys’ role involves fighting for their clients, District Attorney Joyce Dudley said her role “is to rigorously ensure justice for all and public safety.” 

Prosecuting attorneys support release requests if they feel a defendant can be safely freed from custody, Dudley said, adding that on a day-to-day basis, the sheriff’s staff decides who stays in custody and who should get an early release.

The presiding judge’s emergency order also said one courtroom would remain open in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria “as needed for emergency ex-parte temporary restraining orders and other emergency orders.”

Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Raquel Zick said the agency is working with all segments of the criminal justice system, including jail staff, defense attorneys, prosecuting attorneys and probation officers.

“This has to be a coordinated effort … because it’s not as simple as selecting people and saying you’re good to go,” she said.

Due to overcrowding, the Sheriff’s Department assesses the jail population to determine who might be suitable for an early releases. 

“We do this on a consistent basis,” Zick added.

At the time of court suspension order, two jury trials were scheduled to start and one was underway. In that instance, the jury deliberations continued for a Santa Maria civil lawsuit.

“But we’ve moved them into a larger room so that they can practice social distancing,” Parker said. 

Another judge was hearing pre-trial motions in a multi-defendant homicide case, but the matters have been continued until early April.

Many unknowns remain due to the fluid situation, Parker said.

Dudley said she believes the closing of the courts complied with the president’s and governor’s orders.

“This will no doubt create a backlog, but it appears necessary to keep the public safe,” Dudley said. 

When courts reopen fully, some leniency may be needed. Scott said some clients have had trouble accessing court-required programs.

“It’s new territory for everybody,” Scott added.

Late Wednesday, court officials announced all public access to court clerk’s offices has been closed at all locations starting Thursday and continuing through March 27.

The clerk’s offices will continue to accept electronic filings in civil, family, and probate cases, with access here. Self-represented parties are encouraged to e-file, but may submit filings at most court locations by using the designated drop boxes.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.