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Facing Coronavirus, Courts Balancing Justice And Safety In Move To Video Hearings

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Riverside County public defender Paulette Norman prepares for a remote court hearing from home. (Courtesy of Paulette Norman)
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How do you balance the demands of justice with the need to protect defendants, lawyers and judges from COVID-19?

Courts in the greater L.A. area and across the state have turned to an imperfect alternative: remote video proceedings.

The California Judicial Council now allows courts to conduct most preliminary hearings in criminal cases remotely, through an attorney or via teleconference.

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Riverside County claims it’s one of the first in the state to go entirely remote through a video conferencing system called CourtCall.

L.A. County - the largest court system in the country - has started piloting remote access in a few courtrooms at the Foltz Criminal Justice Center and the Pomona Courthouse South, a courts spokeswoman told us.

Many L.A. courtrooms are closed, but some remain open for arraignments and other hearings.

That has prompted prosecutors and defense attorneys to take the rare step of joining the same side -- they’ve criticized the county for keeping some courts open and for not having enough distancing or cleaning supplies.

One deputy DA told us she starts off her mornings at the Compton courthouse by wiping down her table, her chairs, and the door handles with her personal stash of Clorox wipes. Then she passes the wipes around the room.

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“We’re all anxious,” she said. “I feel like we’re doing work that we shouldn't be doing.”

And Nikhil Ramnaney, the president of the public defender’s union, said distancing at an in-person hearing interferes with a defense lawyer’s obligations, since an attorney can’t privately advise a client from six feet away.
“That's not what the Constitution envisioned when it discusses a valid and ethical defense,” he said.

That's one reason why Riverside County's move to all-remote hearings pleased public defender Paulette Norman.

"It was so impossible to keep social distancing" in court, she said.

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