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Speedy Trial Right Violated by COVID-19 Delays?

The delays in jury trials caused by social distancing orders issued by the presiding judge in many counties have led to several of our clients asking if their right to a speedy trial has been violated.

Our initial response to such a question has always been no because such delays certainly seem to constitute good cause because public safety is always a judicial priority.

However, we had not seen a reported decision on this issue until the recent (May 17, 2022) ruling by the Fourth Appellate District in Ruben Elias v. Superior Court of San Diego County.

The factual background for the case is important to understand.  Mr. Elias started dating D.M. in October 2019 and they began living together shortly thereafter.  In January 2020, Mr. Elias struck D.M. in the stomach, arms and legs after learning that they both contracted a sexually transmitted disease.  In February 2020, he again hit her in the stomach, arms and legs while they were in a car.  Once they got to their residence, he hit her in the back of the head, causing her to lose consciousness.  She awoke in a bathtub with Mr. Elias over her, crying, saying he thought he had killed her.

The next month, Mr. Elias grabbed her by the throat and applied so much pressure that she saw dots, became disoriented, felt like she was passing out and urinated on herself.

D.M. did not report any of these incidents because Mr. Elias threatened her and told her he had killed someone before and gotten away with it.  He also said his family were members of a criminal street gang and they would kill her and her children if he were arrested.  He said he would do anything not to go back to prison. 
In April, they argued again about the sexually transmitted disease and Mr. Elias again struck D.M. multiple times with a wooden plunger handle.  She had linear marks and bruises all over her body.  She did not report the incident because Elias threatened to kill her if she reported anything. 

Finally, in May 2020, D.M. went to the police, who arrested Mr. Elias.  He was then charged with three counts of corporal injury to a spouse and / or roommate (Penal Code § 273.5(a)), three counts of assault by means likely to produce great bodily injury (Penal Code § 245(a)(4)), and one count of making a criminal threat (Penal Code § 422).  The complaint also alleged that the crimes took place while he was on parole from prison (for serving a sentence for a conviction for torture (Penal Code § 206)) and that he inflicted great bodily injury upon D.M. in committing domestic violence on D.M. (Penal Code § 12022.7(e)). It was also alleged that he suffered a prior strike (Penal Code §§ 667(a)(1) and 1192.7(c)) and a prior conviction for a serious felony (Penal Code §§ 667(b)(1), 1170.12, and 668).

After several continuances based on the San Diego County Superior Court’s Emergency General Orders related to COVID-19 and Mr. Elias’ unavailability due to medical isolation, the matter came to trial in June 2021.  The trial was continued because Elias did not consent to appearing in a remote closed proceeding.

When Mr. Elias later appeared in court and his attorney answered ready, the prosecution requested a continuance due the unavailability of a witness and because D.M. was on vacation for two weeks. 

After several more continuances, defense counsel moved to release Mr. Elias from custody or dismiss the case.  The court denied the motion, reminding Mr. Elias that he was in the same spot as about 400 other in-custody individuals awaiting trial, commenting, “The pandemic has caused a significant disaster for the courts and, more importantly, for criminal defendants,” due to lack of courtrooms and lack of jurors.

Mr. Elias then filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, contending the trial court violated his right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment and California Penal Code § 1382.  The judge denied it and Mr. Elias appealed this ruling to the Fourth Appellate District Court in San Diego.

The Fourth Appellate District affirmed the trial court.  It explained that while Penal Code § 1382 mandated that a defendant in a felony case must be brought to trial within 60 days of his arraignment, the court can lengthen that time for good cause.  An appellate court must affirm the trial court’s good cause determination unless the lower court exceeded the bounds of reason based on the totality of the circumstances. 
Here, the trial was continued due to COVID-19 for 13 out of the 15 months and delayed due to witness unavailability and the court’s general orders for the remaining two months.  The trial court’s ability to conduct in-person jury trials was severely limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while resumption of jury trials was slow and cumbersome due to numerous state and federal health orders.  Further, the trial court did not exceed the bounds of reason by deciding its judicial resources could be  better used to complete cases with shorter trial time estimates.  Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining good cause existed to continue the trial.

For more information about speedy trial issues, please click on the following articles:
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