San Francisco’s legal logjam

Why The City’s court system is backed up, leaving people in jail and waiting for their day in court

The Sixth Amendment guarantees citizens the right to “a speedy and public trial” without unnecessary delay. Let’s just say our Founding Fathers might be a little disappointed with San Francisco’s court system.

At the start of this year, there were just under 250 people in our county jails whose trial dates had passed, according to the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. It’s a legal logjam that grew during the height of the COVID pandemic. But it’s not getting better.

In fact, it’s gotten so bad that Public Defender Mano Raju has filed a petition with the California Court of Appeals, asking the higher court to force the reopening of more courtrooms in The City.

“People are stuck in jail without trial,” Raju told me. “The (judges) basically started issuing these orders allowing courts to delay trials. I was continually encouraging the courts that if you delay, if you don’t have a legitimate last day (to hold a trial) that means something — this system cannot function.”

A defendant has the right to trial within 60 days of arraignment unless the right is waived (which happens all the time). Sometimes, defense attorneys need more time to investigate. Other times, attorneys waive the right to speedy trial because they don’t want to anger a judge with a full docket. Whatever the reason, the result is a person sitting in jail waiting for trial.

Consider the case of Christopher Welch, a formerly homeless man charged with assault after an altercation with a security guard in April 2021. He was recently acquitted, but Welch ended up spending almost a year in jail, eight months of which came after his original trial deadline. The case was pretty straightforward. The security guard said Welch hit him with a walker. The video surveillance footage acquired by the Public Defender’s Office showed that wasn’t true.

This should have been an open and shut acquittal. Instead, Welch waited nearly a year in jail.

“We are grateful that the jury came to the right conclusion in this case, but it is truly shameful that Mr. Welch spent so much time in jail waiting for his trial on charges that could have been avoided if the police had thoroughly investigated the claims from the beginning,” said Deputy Public Defender Cris Lamb, who represented Welch. “We were also caught in a vicious cycle of trying to get him released from jail to await his trial, but the judge wouldn’t release him without an appropriate program in place, which was never made available. Unfortunately, that resulted in a year of incarceration that greatly affected Mr. Welch’s physical and mental health.”

So this is a release decision dependent on available social services for the defendant. The judge wouldn’t let Welch out because he didn’t have residency in San Francisco. Here’s the rub: Welch was registered for Medi-Cal in Alameda County, making him ineligible for services and placement in The City. It was a bureaucratic mess that left this guy in limbo. A very lousy limbo.

Attempts to contact Welch for this column did not succeed. The public defender’s office believes he has returned to Alameda and sought services after his release.

“Mr. Welch, who was proven to be not guilty, was really tempted at several points in his process to plead guilty to felony charges, felony probation, because he was afraid of going to prison if he was convicted,” said Raju. “The jury ended up acquitting him in less than an hour. But because he was afraid, he was tempted to plead guilty to something he wasn’t guilty of. And that is a problem in our criminal legal system. And it’s a problem that every single defense attorney and client has to deal with.”

Inmates move through the processing center at San Francisco County Jail in 2017. Jessica Christian/The Examiner

Inmates move through the processing center at San Francisco County Jail in 2017. Jessica Christian/The Examiner

Raju told me the man gained a lot of weight in jail, eating bad food while awaiting his day in court. He also told me he doesn’t understand the holdup in opening more courtrooms to get these cases going.

“I don’t know what the sticking point is,” said Raju. “We should have every single Civic Center courtroom in every possible San Francisco courtroom. And if we need to use other buildings in The City, let’s do that. We’ll try cases anywhere. High school gyms. Moscone Center. Wherever it needs to be. Just give us a space.”

According to Raju’s office, prior to the pandemic, in 2019, there were 21 courtrooms at the Hall of Justice allocated to criminal matters. Additionally, there are 12 trial courtrooms at the Civic Center Courthouse, bringing the total number of courtrooms that can be used for trials to at least 33. As of this week, there are nine felony jury trials in progress at 850 Bryant and one misdemeanor trial in progress at the Civic Center Courthouse.

“If we’re going to prioritize anything as The City reopens, the most important thing to prioritize, according to our Constitution, should be people’s right to liberty,” he said.

Sounds like a good idea to me. We’ll see how the Court of Appeals rules on Raju’s petition. Hopefully, we can get our court system humming again, as many other Bay Area counties have managed to do.

In lockstep with that effort, Mayor London Breed has some interesting choices coming up in her June budget regarding Raju’s department. He’s asking for more money to do the job right.

The Public Defender’s Office currently has a budget of $41,420,758, with a staff of 210. That budget is a little more than half of the District Attorney’s Office, even as public defenders represent 70% of individuals charged by the DA. The public defender’s budget is approximately two times less than the Adult and Juvenile Probation departments, six times less than the Sheriff’s Department and 15 times less than the Police Department, according to Raju.

He is asking the Mayor for an increase of $5.28 million in year one, and $6.4 million in year two.

“We need more funding for the public defender because a lot of these cases don’t necessarily have to go into the criminal court to begin with,” said Raju. “What people don’t understand is, you know, because of the Fifth Amendment, we can get in there with people who are accused and get an in-depth understanding of all the dynamics going on in a way that the other agencies cannot. In a way Probation cannot. In a way Parole cannot. In a way that district attorneys and police and sheriffs and all the other players in the system cannot. And, on top of that, we’re often the ones fighting for the best legal outcome.”

That makes sense to me.

The Arena, a column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic, explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to asaracevic@sfexaminer.com. Sign up for his weekly newsletter here. And follow him on Twitter @alsaracevic.

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