When jury trials resume in San Mateo County on Monday, the courtrooms will look vastly different. The coronavirus pandemic is touching many aspects of the local judicial process.
Jurors will be expected to wear masks and gloves, conduct a health screening before entering the courtroom and sit in the pews designated normally for the public. Prosecutors and attorneys will also be wearing masks and asked to stand in the jury box. Witnesses will be called in one at a time and be asked to stand behind a glass shield when addressing the court.
While some legal proceedings have been continued remotely, no jury trials have been conducted in San Mateo County since March 16. Now, with some new protocols in place, a few are set to proceed. Court officials made the announcement Friday afternoon.
“These are sort of our test runs,” District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said.
He said the three jury trials that will proceed this next month were cases that were already in the process before the shelter-in-place restrictions were set.
“Surprisingly, all the jurors are still available,” he said. “Usually in the summer people go on vacations, but that’s not happening much this year.”
Often, courtrooms are packed during a jury trial. Family members, the media and attorneys often fill the room. Under new guidelines, people will be required to be at least six feet apart to practice social distancing. In waiting rooms, courtrooms and jury deliberation, seating will be reduced and spaces will be marked in the hallway if people must wait in line.
As a result of the need for distance between people, the court will not be able to schedule as many jury trials as is normal, according to Presiding Judge Jonathan Karesh.
The change in procedures is raising questions about the legality of court plans. Defense attorney Paul DeMeester filed two objections to the protocols. He represents a defendant in a Daly City cold case murder trial set to proceed. He stated concerns over how wearing masks and the placement of the jury may impact the trial and said a lack of access for the public violates the Sixth Amendment.
As it stands, if someone from the public wants to view a trial, he or she must request an audio link in advance. DeMeester claims that is not good enough as it excludes people with disabilities and people who lack internet access.
“It’s an important check on our democracy. We want to know how the court behaves,” he said. “If we can’t have members of the media or public present because it is so dangerous, why are we there?”
DeMeester said there could be alternatives such as allowing trials to happen in other venues, such as auditoriums, to allow for more people to gather at a safe distance, or to allow a select few people from the public and media to attend in person.
Wagstaffe said on Friday, the media was permitted to attend trials, but DeMeester said that was not how he interpreted discussions with the presiding judge. DeMeester’s requests will be considered next week.
Now that trials are resuming, DeMeester worries the courts could be overwhelmed quickly as there’s an accumulation of cases that have all been continued to this summer or fall.
“It will be like the Niagara Falls when things open. There will be an initial rush of lots of cases,” he said.
Whatever demand there is for previous cases will be offset slightly by a decline in new filings, according to Wagstaffe.
“Filings are down, charging is down as police are not making as many arrests,” he said. “However, there will no doubt be a backlog, but everyone is going to be working hard.”