Law Enforcement Group Tells Judges to Stop `Reckless Dismissal’ of Cases

Ceci Partridge

(CNS) – A law enforcement group representing Riverside County’s sheriff, district attorney and 19 chiefs of police Thursday called on Superior Court judges to end the mass dismissal of criminal cases to solve a backlog, saying the practice is escalating dangers to public safety.

“The courts have engaged in the reckless dismissal of more than 1,000 cases, undermining the rule of law and making Riverside County a less safe place to live,” the Association of Riverside County Chiefs of Police and Sheriff — ARCCOPS — said in a statement. “A large percentage of the dismissed cases involve domestic violence, while many are felonies involving firearms.”

According to the latest figures released by the District Attorney’s Office, 1,098 cases have been booted by judges since Oct. 10. Judges have been vacating cases almost daily, generally citing a lack of available courtroom space for trials as the main reason for the dismissals. Most of the cases were added to dockets during the public health lockdowns, when courts suspended many operations under emergency orders from the California Office of the Chief Justice.

A backlog of roughly 2,800 cases developed. The chief justice’s pandemic orders expired on Oct. 7.

“In one case, a judge dismissed five felony charges, including attempted murder,” according to ARCCOPS. “While we commend District Attorney Mike Hestrin for immediately re-filing charges in this case, and in many other dismissed cases, this is a temporary fix. The state needs to do more, perhaps by adding more judges and staff to help alleviate the backlog.”

The majority of cases have been dismissed by judicial officers at the Larson Justice Center in Indio, followed by a smaller number at the Banning Justice Center, and fewer at the Southwest Justice Center in Murrieta, the Riverside Hall of Justice and the Blythe Courthouse.

According to data, the lion’s share of cases dismissed were misdemeanor filings, many of them domestic violence matters. However, figures revealed that close to 30 have been felony assault with a deadly weapon cases, along with five alleged kidnappings, five alleged robberies and five alleged attempted murders.

ARCCOPS noted that judges in Sacramento County had “embraced creative solutions” to prevent mass dismissals, including reopening night courts and holding hearings virtually.

“We call on Riverside County judges to show that same level of urgency and creativity to address this public safety crisis, as continuing to set criminals free undermines the entire justice system and threatens our communities,” the association said. “These days, we are fielding a constant stream of calls from crime victims and their families, wondering whether justice will be served in their cases. They deserve an answer.”

Superior Court Presiding Judge John Monterosso released a statement on Oct. 25 acknowledging the court system was bearing a heavy load, traced to the lockdowns and consequent changes in court operations.

“The genesis of the current set of circumstances is the chronic and generational lack of judges allocated to serve Riverside County,” Monterosso said.

He emphasized the county has 90 authorized and funded judicial positions, but a 2020 Judicial Needs Assessment Study noted that 115 judicial officers are needed to ensure efficient operations throughout the local court system and prevent logjams.

“While the law allows a court to continue a case beyond the statutory deadline for `good cause,’ the decision on whether `good cause’ exists is an individualized decision made by the trial judge based on the law and the facts of the case,” Monterosso said.

Hestrin questioned the legitimacy of basing dismissals on a deficit of judicial resources, given that “this has been the case as far back as anyone can remember.”

According to prosecutors, some of the dismissals are being appealed, while other cases are being re-filed in response to the judges’ actions.

The backlog is reminiscent of the cumulative impact of a buildup of unresolved criminal cases in 2007 that prompted the state to dispatch a “judicial strike team” to the county to help sort through criminal cases clogging the court system.

At the time, the Superior Court virtually halted civil jury trials for months while judges focused on reducing the strain on resources. An empty elementary school was even converted into a makeshift courthouse.

Copyright 2023, City News Service, Inc.

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