Big wheels (of justice) keep on turning; Virus no help in dodging law | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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Big wheels (of justice) keep on turning; Virus no help in dodging law

Pat Lakey / Mountain Democrat

A young woman wearing bright blue mascara tugged on her skirt’s hem to try to cover a bit of startlingly evident flesh as she approached the security checkpoint at El Dorado County Superior Court’s Dept. 7 on Fair Lane in Placerville.

She needn’t have bothered with the eye makeup and eye-catching outfit, however, and she didn’t even get as far as walking through the scanner that checks for weapons as people file toward Judge Mark Ralphs’ courtroom. That’s because it turned out that the young man she had come to see — her boyfriend who was in the county jail and set for a court appearance that day — wasn’t there.

The young woman dropped her shoulders and cocked a hip as she listened to the sheriff’s deputy on security detail explain that the girlfriend still could observe the court proceeding by going upstairs in county government Building C and firing up her cell phone.

“We have free WiFi upstairs and you can go to the website and watch remotely,” smiled the officer, watching as the disappointed gal began digging in her bag for her phone while she headed for the stairway.

It’s a long way from the days when court bailiffs had to keep an eagle eye out for scantily clad girlfriends trying to communicate in person with the lads dressed in orange, signs posted prominently in the courtroom saying that such interaction is strictly forbidden.

But still, the women managed to give the guys in jail custody something to lift their spirits — until the coronavirus not only closed stores and put a halt to normal life, but put the kibosh on that as well.

Despite COVID-19 changing much of what had been reality, the boyfriend mentioned above actually did have his hearing that day. He was sitting in a special room at the jail with his attorney as Judge Ralphs sitting on the bench in the courtroom conversed with the pair, along with the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case. Ralphs a couple of times complained he had trouble hearing the attorneys and the defendant, but within a few minutes everything was smoothed out through the virtual arraignment using Zoom technology.

New court scene

The judge was really there, along with the court reporter and the judge’s clerk, with the sparse tableau also populated by a bailiff or two.

But the gallery sat empty, no one taking any of the seats in the spectators’ section that day. Even had they wished to walk inside the courtroom, people would find they may not plop down just anywhere — some seats were covered in paper on which words were printed saying that spot is out of bounds.

That innovation, designed to accommodate social distancing of 6 feet, is just one of many changes that have occurred in the local court system since the pandemic began wreaking its havoc.

And for those who figured, as many did, that the courts were closed during the past three months, guess again. With Zoom, the courtroom was condensed to a TV-like screen, participants shown from remote locations.

It’s a long way from the crowded courtroom where the “real killer” would burst through the doors, nearly bumping into folks packed into seats, shouting his conscience as Perry Mason merely smiled knowingly.

Technology makes it happen

As District Attorney Vern Pierson showed recently, the courtroom of old can now be just about anywhere. Pierson was not in Placerville for the interview with the Mountain Democrat, saying he instead had to be up at Lake Tahoe “on business” and would state his case remotely, using Zoom.

“Our staff used (Zoom) technology to have regular meetings at 8:30 every morning and I think the deputy district attorneys, the staff with the Victim Witness Assistance program actually enjoyed it,” said Pierson. “The meetings lasted about 15 minutes and they were very popular.

“We also used Zoom to meet with the Public Defender’s Office and we pretty much managed to push cases through just as normal.”

The DA mentioned one high-profile case that was dealt with during the three months of coronavirus-colored law enforcement operations, that of the suspected murderer of a clerk at a gas station in South Lake Tahoe in 2013. Despite the added challenges since mid-March, the DA’s Cold Case Task Force on May 12 arrested 34-year-old Sean Donohoe of Las Vegas — a man who lived in South Lake Tahoe in 2013 and toward whom DNA evidence points in the case.

It was a collaborative effort with the Sheriff’s Office, the SLT Police Department, the California Department of Justice, state Bureau of Forensic Science and the FBI 

In addition to keeping in touch with the vast team of law officers, what now seems old-fashioned technology was significant in leading to a suspect in the slaying of Manpreet Singh: a store-captured video showing the crime occurring. The DA’s Office posted that video to its Facebook page in July of 2017 — and that led to the tip that ultimately nailed a murder suspect.

New work protocols

While Pierson said face-to-face interviews with suspects, witnesses and even other law enforcement is by far the preferred method of doing business for his office, he added that the pandemic-prompted lessons are not being ignored.

“We’re looking more at working remotely, looking at how that’s being done in the private sector — and it could be that if we are effective working remotely, with staff working from home, we would like to do that.

“But in-person, especially when you’re trying to ‘read’ the other person’s body language and reactions, is the most effective.”

The DA concedes that Zoom and other similar technology “can compromise” that sort of interaction, but he still feels it is “the next best thing.”

Pierson added he thinks “most of America” has realized the new normal will include some of necessity’s recent dictates, what he called “a variation of ‘before.’”

On the plus side, said the DA, the pandemic’s resultant keeping of inmates in the jail for their court “appearance” has proved a boon for jail staff.

“We’ve worked closely with the jail staff, and by not having to transport the inmates back and forth, they’ve eliminated some safety concerns.”

Incidentally, when Dept. 7’s Judge Ralphs dealt with the man mentioned earlier, the defendant and his attorney were asked whether it was agreed that the arraignment could be conducted “by video conferencing.” Both said yes.

If a defendant were to object, that person would have a Constitutional right to be heard, in person, before a judge, according to the DA’s Office.

And by the way, if you received a summons to report for jury duty and were wondering whether you really are required to show up — you are, said Chief Assistant DA Joe Alexander.

Alexander said precautions are in place in the courthouses and courtrooms to assure social distancing and sanitary conditions. He added that summonses just recently started being mailed out for the first time in the wake of the order in March banning jurors from being called to court.


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