Evacuation Defense Attorney John Ward calls for court hearings to be suspended amid Covid-19 pandemic. (Courthouse News Photo / Nathan Solis)
LOS ANGELES (CN) – As Los Angeles County comes to another heavy stay at home due to a Covid-19 spike after vacation, attorneys and clients want evictions and other trials to be suspended for saying courtrooms too crowded.
On Friday, a group of eviction lawyers and their clients pleaded outside a courthouse in downtown LA just days after public health officials emphasized the need to avoid contact with strangers in enclosed spaces.
The LA County Superior Court mandates the use of masks, clears out seating, and follows other rules to help slow the spread of the virus. But that’s a lukewarm reaction when people sit in a courtroom with no windows and next to strangers for several hours.
In the past few weeks, LA County Public Health confirmed seven cases of Covid-19 in the Stanley Mosk Courthouse.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Lynn Byers, who has been fighting her eviction case for several months in court. “There are no temperature controls on the doors. People walk around with their masks under their noses. Nobody is monitoring it. “
The courthouse feels like an unsafe environment to Byers, and a judge has refused to reschedule her trial.
“I’m just watching them move the process forward. I have a 90 year old mother I take care of sometimes and the court can’t just wait a few months for this Covid situation to subside? “Said Byers outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse while wearing a cloth mask and plastic glasses.
She was surrounded by many more tenants and attorneys arguing that the courts seem to exist in a world separated from reality.
As of Thursday, over 420,000 Angelenos had tested positive for the virus and over 7,700 have died since the pandemic began. On Friday, the county reported 8,860 new cases and 60 deaths in a single day.
In March, LA District Supreme Court presiding judge Kevin Brazile suspended all non-emergency trials when little was known about the virus. By October, judicial proceedings for illegal detention or eviction cases had resumed.
Last month, LA residents like Byers watched Covid-19 cases rise to record highs.
Hospitals are on the verge of flooding with Covid-19 patients, and the persistent, widespread rate of infection forced health officials to close outdoor dining in restaurants and restrict other activities in late November.
However, district courts continue to work with new infection control guidelines, many of which say they don’t go far enough.
There are now new guidelines and signage in the courthouses. Masks are mandatory, hand sanitizer dispensers are distributed throughout the courtroom, and stickers indicate seating.
Even so, elevators and hallways are full of people and eviction courts will have even more traffic in the coming months.
This is because the evacuation protection set up by district officials and legislators expires in early 2021. For eviction defense attorneys like John Ward of tenant rights group Basta Inc., this means that a large backlog of eviction cases will force more people – mostly small ones – to invite people with color – for hours in crowded courtrooms.
“If it’s unsafe in a church, it’s unsafe in a courtroom,” said Ward, referring to the county’s health ordinance, which bans indoor worship.
Ward said he expected the spate of evictions that will come next year due to the economic downturn caused by the virus will put him and his customers at risk.
The court has responded in a way over the past few days with extensions for criminal proceedings and youth hearings. In a statement, Brazile said extending deadlines would give court staff the flexibility to reduce the number of people in a courtroom at any given time.
“The court is taking decisive action this week to limit the number of people in courthouses, while balancing its commitment to justice with its duty to protect everyone who visit and work in its courthouses,” Brazil said.
Virtual appearances are possible for some of the hearings. However, if someone does not have access to the internet or needs an interpreter, they have few options except to go to court in person.
Some lawyers say that while they and their clients wait with other people in crowded courtrooms, judges often video appear from their chambers.
“I’m scared of going to court,” said Elizabeth Hernandez, a tenant fighting her eviction case in the courthouse in downtown LA. “And nobody does anything to protect us.”
The LA County Superior Court did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The coalition that sent the letter to the court calling for more transparency with Covid-19 infection guidelines and a temporary suspension of the trial include the Eviction Defense Network, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Basta Inc., the Public Counsel, Court Watch LA and much more.
The groups say the court did not respond to their demands.