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COVID disrupting court schedules

 

Attorney says county is striking ‘very good balance’

 

By Rhett Wilkinson

Staff writer

8-13-2020

 

SANPETE COUNTY—David Angerhofer, a public defender for Sanpete County, agrees that the Sanpete County court system has “struck a very good balance” in the midst of COVID-19 between keeping inmates behind bars and releasing them out to the public.

“The jail is very good to work with as well,” Angerhofer said. “They accommodate the attorneys.”

Despite extra work to the Sanpete County Jail as a result of the pandemic, the jail is “rising to the occasion,” said Angerhofer, adding that it is doing a “wonderful job.”

Angerhofer said the county is “really going the extra mile” in handling the court system in the midst of the pandemic.

It marks a time where the criminal justice system, including the court and jail, has dealt with other COVID-19-related issues, like a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The county is protecting the health and safety of inmates in jail while giving them a lower bail or releasing inmates, Angerhofer said.

“They’ve been very good to work with,” Angerhofer said.

Angerhofer further talked about his belief that the jail has found a good spot between holding inmates versus releasing them. He spoke about the court’s considerations being safety of the community and “flight risk,” or the hazard of the inmate fleeing.

“[If] you let them go, are they going to come back for the next hearing?” Angerhofer asked.

“We are all having to be I guess creative while keeping the rights of our clients in mind—do the best we can and that’s all we can do,” Angerhofer said. “I think the judge has been very considerate; very cognizant of everyone’s rights.

“[You] can’t fault the system; [you] can just fault the virus,” Angerhofer added. “[We] have to play the cards we were dealt here.”

Angerhofer also notes that COVID-19’s influence on the county’s court system has been “inconvenient for the public as well.”

“[With] some of the higher-profile cases, if the victims wanted to attend a hearing or see what’s happening, it’s a lot more difficult for them,” Angerhofer said. “It is possible, but it’s not like the old days where you can pack a court room … it’s not like that at all.”

 

The court system

 

Utah 6th District Court Judge Marvin Bagley told the Sanpete Messenger that the court is making sure that anybody who needs to stay in jail does.

“We’re not going to let them loose if they are a danger to the public or themselves,” Bagley said.

All trials in Utah, both criminal and civil, are postponed until September “at the very least,” Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels said.

“They’ll reevaluate” in September, Daniels said. “Basically they’re postponed but they’ll reevaluate.”

State courts spokesman Geoffrey Fattah said that the courts have “been operating under their own pandemic plan that’s kind of separate from the governor’s,” functioning under “the red phase.” It has entailed links to “remote video systems” and a judge presiding over a video hearing. That has been going on for “the last couple of months,” Fattah said.

“We do know that criminal matters have been given a priority,” Fattah said. “[We] recognize that there are certain constitutional rights that are at stake with individuals who are being held in jail.”

The courts have not held a jury trial statewide since February. Bench trials can move forward by video. The courts are working on guidelines for how to return to jury trials eventually. It’s “done out of concern of those on jury duty as well as our staff and everybody involved,” Fattah said.

Regarding preliminary hearings “and so forth,” judges are doing their best to hold those by video, if possible, Fattah said. They have also been handling motions from defensive attorneys requesting COVID-19 related release of their clients.

“[We] have to weigh a delicate balance of public safety versus the health concern of the defense attorney’s client,” Fattah said. “I know our judges have seen these motions for pandemic-related release for jails and I think that priority has gone to non-violent defendants. Or also defendants who have not been deemed a flight risk.”

Bagley doesn’t know what percentage of inmates were released due to COVID-19. Also, he said he doesn’t think anybody was released just because of the pandemic.

“It’s just one factor … into a whole list of considerations that we take,” Bagley said.

Daniels said “The courts have released a lot of people due to COVID. It’s not overflowing.” He said that only “a couple” inmates were released who shouldn’t have been. He then noted that the judges have a “very, very tough job” in determining who should be released. He referred to “released” while not talking about own recognizance (OR), which is like a bail-free release where one is saying “you are going to come back.”

“The judges have been right about OR’ing the right people,” Daniels said. “I think they have done a really good job given the lack of information they have. For the most part, they get that right.”

Daniels also noted that the judges are following a mandate from the Utah Supreme Court “asking all courts to be more liberal in their application of OR release.”

The way it works, Daniels explained, is that individuals with no criminal history who are not a threat to a community or at danger to run have been OR-released.

“They aren’t releasing people who are a danger to the community,” Daniels said.

Before COVID-19, Daniels “could count on one hand” instances of OR releases.

“It just didn’t happen,” Daniels said. “I’m not overly thrilled that it’s happening now, but that’s our reality.”

The court is also “overall,” “a little more lenient on setting bail a little less” than it would be otherwise, Bagley said.

Daniels expressed an example of a bail being reduced from $50,000 to $5,000 after a bail hearing.

The released inmates will return to jail, Bagley said.

“They definitely come back,” he said. “They have to sign a promise to appear.”

Further, most of them sign an agreement to be supervised while they are on release; Sanpete County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Greenwell supervises them while they are on release; and they have to be tested for drugs if it’s a drug case. If they violate the terms of the agreements, their pretrial release is revoked and “they are back in jail,” Bagley said.

“Overall, the case continues to move forward at its regular pace,” Bagley said. “The only thing that is delayed beyond normal are jury trials.”

 

The jail

 

In the jail, inmates are being given free soap and hand sanitizer in an effort to increase hygiene in the jail, said Daniels, noting that the jail doesn’t have any COVID-19 cases.

The courts and jail have also taken into account social distancing, said Daniels, noting that the jail put in a social distance policy itself.

“Sheriff [Brian] Nielson, I cannot say enough good things about him and how he runs his office,” Daniels said, noting that Nielson was “ahead of this issue … before anyone else in the state.”

“Kudos to him,” Daniels said. “I mean, just on top of it. He and his officers are the reason why we don’t have any issues in the jail yet.”

The Sanpete County sheriff’s office did not return a request for comment.

 

The ACLU’s lawsuit

 

Fattah referred to a Salt Lake Tribune article from May 14 and an ABC4 Utah story from July 23 when talking about the ACLU’s lawsuit.

The Tribune story is headlined “ACLU drops its coronavirus lawsuit against Utah’s county jails, but not the prison.”

“Most counties in Utah are taking adequate measures to keep the coronavirus out of its jails, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah says, which is why it has asked the Utah Supreme Court to dismiss a lawsuit,” the Tribune’s Jessica Miller wrote. “But the ACLU says it will continue to sue the Utah Department of Corrections and the parole board, saying the processes they have put in place aren’t enough.

“The ACLU jointly filed a petition on April 1 with the Utah Disability Law Center and the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, asking the state Supreme Court to step in and order officials to reduce the jail population and do more to keep the incarcerated population safe during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Tribune reported. “In a joint statement released Thursday, the three groups say they didn’t know what measures were underway before filing their lawsuit—despite their efforts to request that information from jailers across the state prior to litigation. Those efforts became more clear after counties filed their responses in court.”

The ACLU wanted to get in the news to attract donors, Daniels said, saying “the county stood our ground.”