The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.” In California, this right is codified in Article 1, Section 15 of the California Constitution, as well as in California Penal Code section 686(1). Yet, it is estimated that as of August 30, 2021, there at least 429 people in the San Francisco Superior Court system whose pending criminal case has passed the statutory deadline for trial. Of those people, approximately 178 are being held in jail, with many being subject to solitary confinement in the interim. This humanitarian problem imperils the most fundamental constitutional, statutory, and human rights guaranteed to all. At the current rate the court is assigning cases to trials, the backlog of those waiting for their trials in custody will continue to increase.
For this reason, the law firms of Miller Shah LLP and Olivier Schreiber & Chao LLP have filed suit on behalf of Plaintiffs and Petitioners, Manohar Raju, in his official capacity as the Public Defender of San Francisco, along with Elisa Baier, Donna Doyle, John Dunbar and Rose Marie Sims (collectively “Plaintiffs”) against the San Francisco Superior Court for failing to provide speedy trials to the criminally accused. The Defendants being sued are the San Francisco Superior Court, Samuel K. Feng, in his official capacity as Presiding Judge of San Francisco Superior Court, and T. Michael Yuen, in his official capacity as Chief Executive Officer of the San Francisco Superior Court (collectively “Defendants”).
Plaintiffs allege that the Defendants have unlawfully prioritized civil proceedings over criminal ones, causing hundreds to lose their right to a speedy trial. California Penal Code section 1050(a) requires courts and judges to “expedite [criminal] proceedings to the greatest degree that is consistent with the ends of justice,” even though Plaintiffs estimate that between July and August 2021, the Court never devoted more than 11% of its departments to criminal matters. Furthermore, the Court has tried only 34 criminal cases to verdict since March 16, 2020, a number significantly lower than that of neighboring counties. Although Defendants cite safety and staffing concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, such concerns have not justified their sweeping and arbitrary decision to prioritize the civil docket, especially as the rest of the city opens up.
Provincialization of criminal matters exacerbates racial and socioeconomic disparities. The population of San Francisco is approximately 5.6% Black, but as of September 2021, more than 53% of the individuals awaiting trial are Black. Considering that the Court has acknowledged the impact of racism and racial inequality in a July 13, 2020 statement and pledged to “strive constantly to improve the Superior Court to offer access to justice for all,” it – along with every institution – must closely examine the ways in which its policies affect marginalized groups. Even more troubling, the issue appears to be growing. Analysis of the issue shows that the average in-custody felony case now takes five to six months past their statutory deadline to reach trial. This is a notable increase from the three-month delays present earlier in the pandemic.
Extended incarceration exacts a human toll. For example, one man affected by Defendants’ inhumane policy was imprisoned from August 19, 2020 to May 4, 2021. He was brought to trial in March 2021 – three months after the statutory trial deadline – and he was ultimately acquitted. An innocent man spent three extra months in jail for no reason. For others, extended periods of incarceration mean solitary confinement and frequent lockdowns due to COVID-19. Reportedly, many detainees spend upwards of 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, a living condition well known to cause mental and physical anguish. On top of those issues, detainees often must endure the extreme anxiety that flows from the loss of a job, housing, or family stability while being held.
Many institutions, including government agencies, hospitals, and businesses have found ways to operate safely during COVID-19. The courts must do the same. Because each of these pre-trial detainees is presumed innocent until proven guilty, safeguarding their rights is of tantamount importance.
Plaintiffs seek a writ of mandate and injunctive and declaratory relief requiring the San Francisco Superior Court, including its Presiding Judge and CEO, to devote all available resources to restoring the right of the criminally accused to a speedy trial.
Miller Shah is honored to represent the Plaintiffs in this matter and is committed to representing clients in important pro bono matters as a matter of professional and civic responsibility. If you have any questions regarding this subject or this posting, please call us toll-free at (866) 540-5505. Miller Shah LLP is a law firm with offices in California, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Miller Shah is an active member of Integrated Advisory Group (www.iaginternational.org), which provides our firm with the ability to provide our clients with access to excellent legal and accounting resources throughout the globe. For more information about our firm, please visit us online at www.millershah.com.