Public Defender Says COVID-19 Policy Stripping Clients of Rights

Santa Barbara County Superior Court’s Prohibition of Pretrial-Release Hearings Comes Under Fire

Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

The Santa Barbara Public Defender’s Office filed a writ Monday against the Santa Barbara County Superior Court’s COVID-19 policy that prohibits hearings for the pretrial release of those in County Jail, alleging that the court is stripping them of their rights and forcing them to further languish in jail — indefinitely.

“We are not talking about people who are sitting in jail because they’ve been convicted of serious or violent offenses,” said Public Defender Tracy Macuga. “We are talking about people who are awaiting trial, presumed innocent, and who are only in custody because they cannot afford to bail out. If you are rich and have the money to afford bail, then this is a non-issue.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the court on March 17 switched to only hearing custody arraignment cases and stopped hearing non-arraignment matters, such as trials, motions, and sentencings. This switch forced the Public Defender’s Office to stop scheduling their pretrial clients’ cases to demand reduced bail and release on their own recognizance. It also prevents people who were scheduled to be released at sentencing from being released.

The Independent left messages with Darrel Parker, court executive officer/jury commissioner for the Santa Barbara County Superior Court, but did not receive a call back before deadline.

The petitioners, Sean Rodriguez, Isael Elenes, and Christopher Huntfox, are asking that the court set hearings to consider their release or a bail reduction in light of the current viral pandemic. Their attorneys filed emergency motions on their behalf.

“Our office has been trying to negotiate with prosecutors to try to release people because of the danger of infection in jail,” Macuga said. “However, when those negotiations fail, we have no remedy. Our local judges have locked us out of the courthouse and sanctioned keeping our clients locked inside of cages indefinitely, rendering them vulnerable to infection.”

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