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Imperial County Courthouse in El Centro. | JACOB NICHOLAS RODRIGUEZ PHOTO

DA’s Office Pushes for Return to Remote Court

Amid COVID Surge, Outbreaks Seen Among Prosecutors, Public Defenders, Court Staff

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EL CENTRO — An already short-staffed Imperial County District Attorney’s Office is imploring the county Superior Court to reinstate COVID-related precautionary measures after the agency experienced an outbreak of positive cases this week.

The DA’s Office’s request to a return to remote criminal court hearings came in the form of two separate letters sent to Presiding Judge William Quan on Monday, Jan. 3 and Wednesday, Jan. 5.

In her second letter to Quan, Assistant DA Heather Trapnell acknowledges that the county Public Defender’s Office had also sent Quan a separate letter making a similar request for a return to virtual court hearings in place of the in-person proceedings currently being scheduled.

Trapnell further states that she had yet to receive any response to her first letter as of Wednesday, and that additional personnel were diagnosed with COVID-19 in the interim.

“The District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office have both been declared ‘outbreaks’ by the county despite our skeleton staffing and maximum telecommuting,” Trapnell’s Dec. 5 letter stated.

The letters from both the DA’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office have prompted “internal discussions” at the county court, Mona Gieck, senior administrative assistant at the court, said in an email on Wednesday, Dec. 5.

“Ensuring equal access to justice for all community members is at the forefront of the court’s mission,” Gieck stated.

The county agencies’ reported outbreaks come less than a week after the court itself reported on Thursday, Dec. 30 that it was in self-declared outbreak status, as six individuals were diagnosed as COVID-positive over the previous 14 days.

Though a court official had reported at the time that the local courts planned to enhance the enforcement of their indoor masking policy, no other planned precautionary measures were disclosed.

Specifically, the DA’s Office’s letters object to the court’s requirement of in-person court proceedings and the risk those crowded hearings place on attorneys and victim advocates.

“This is an urgent matter,” the Dec. 5 letter stated. “Each day the Court fails to act, our staff faces more exposure.”

The DA’s Office is currently operating with a total of 15 attorneys, which includes DA Gilbert Otero. Of those, four are not working because of COVID-related reasons, Trapnell said during a phone interview on Wednesday, Dec. 5.

The agency is supposed to have 20 attorneys when fully staffed.  

“In normal times we can hardly cover all of our responsibilities and with this we’re obviously much worse,” she said.

The current situation also surpasses any pandemic-related impact that the DA’s Office’s personnel experienced during prior surges.

“Since this current surge has started it’s been worse than it’s ever been,” Trapnell said. “This is far beyond what we’ve ever experienced.”

By reinstating virtual court proceedings, attorneys who are experiencing mild symptoms could potentially continue to work from home without exposing co-workers in the office or individuals at the local courthouses, Trapnell said.

Aside from the reimplementation of virtual court proceedings, Trapnell said the court’s justice system partners and the general public would benefit from the temporary suspension of jury trials amid the current surge, as well.

“I’m not worried only about the DA’s staff,” she said, “I’m worried about who we are going to expose.”

Following the outbreak that the court reported on Dec. 30, the court announced that its operations were not expected to be impacted.

“If we get to a point where there is too many staff out where we cannot actually man either the offices or the courtrooms, which, quite honestly, we worked on skeletal staffing before and we’ve managed, I don’t expect or anticipate that we will get to that point,” Laura Flores, director of human resources at the court, previously told this newspaper. “But what would really determine and drive that is if we have the majority of our staff out due to COVID.”

As for the court’s current measures, they comply with all state and local health mandates, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines including those of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA) and other authorities, court senior administrative assistant Gieck stated

“The Court will continue to comply with these mandates and guidelines as public health and safety,” she stated. 

In his separate Jan. 3 and Jan. 5 letters to the court, county Assistant Public Defender Jason Gundel also asked for the resumption of remote court hearings to better protect the local justice system’s various stakeholders.

Just last week, the Public Defender’s Office reduced staffing levels, limited building access and implemented telecommuting policies for all employees because of a recent 80 percent countywide increase in adult infections, Gundel stated in his Jan. 3 letter to Judge Quan.

And like the DA’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office reminded the local court that other superior courts in the state have resumed virtual criminal court hearings in response to the current surge, including in San Diego and Orange counties.

“The Imperial County Superior Court continues to require in-person appearances even as Covid-19 cases are soaring,” Gundel stated in his Jan. 5 letter. “This is putting attorneys, investigators and staff from the Public Defender’s Office at needless risk and is impacting operations.”

The call for the resumption of local remote court hearings extends beyond the DA’s and Public Defender’s Offices. On Wednesday, Jan. 5, county Public Information Officer Gilbert Rebollar issued a written statement expressing concern about the potential health risks that personnel from the Public Defender’s Office are facing, among others.

“The health and safety of attorneys and staff of the District Attorney’s office, probation officers, law enforcement officers, and members of the public are similarly exposed to needless risk that would be avoided through the resumption of remote court hearings,” Rebollar stated.

Richard Brown contributed information to this story.

(This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 5, with information from the Public Defender’s Office.)

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