FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 26, 2023
SF Public Defender’s Office | PubDef-MediaRelations@sfgov.org | Jessie.Seyfer@sfgov.org | (415) 851-2212
Civil Rights Corps | Cheryl Bonacci | firstname.lastname@example.org | 818-339-6928
Civil Rights Corps, San Francisco Public Defender Ask California Supreme Court to Review Challenge to S.F. Court Trial Backlog
Nearly 1,000 trials are delayed past their Constitutionally mandated deadline, with more than 120 people languishing in SF jail subject to near-lockdown conditions and no sunlight.
SAN FRANCISCO — Civil Rights Corps, a national nonprofit that challenges systemic injustice in the U.S. legal system, is joining with the S.F. Public Defender’s Office today to ask California’s highest court to address the San Francisco Superior Court’s severe trial backlog. The backlog is denying nearly 1,000 individuals of their Constitutional right to a speedy trial, and more than 120 of these individuals are languishing in San Francisco jail for months and even years past their trial deadlines, subject to near-lockdown conditions and no sunlight.
Community members have seen their lives completely upended by the backlog only to have charges dismissed at trial. In November 2022, a judge dismissed charges against Sarina Borg, a mother who was accused of aiding and abetting a homicide in May 2020. Borg’s trial came two years past her Constitutionally mandated deadline, and she was caged in the San Francisco Jail for 2.5 years total. In January 2022, a jury acquitted former firefighter Stephen Kloster of felony assault charges after deliberating for a day and a half. Kloster, the primary caregiver for his 87-year-old mother who suffers from schizophrenia, had spent 410 days in jail, including 274 days past his trial deadline.
“Our organization was moved to support the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office in challenging the injustice of this situation,” said Peter Santina, a managing attorney at Civil Rights Corps. “When the right to a speedy trial is not respected, people face unpredictable, lengthy delays in their case, increasing the pressure to accept plea deals, even for crimes they did not commit, simply to end that pretrial misery and uncertainty.”
Today, Civil Rights Corps filed an amicus brief with the California Supreme Court supporting the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office’s request for the high court to review a lower court’s decision in Estrada v. The Superior Court of the City and County of San Francisco. In that case, two S.F. Public Defender clients are seeking to have their charges dismissed due to their trials being delayed far past their Constitutional trial deadline. But the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled in February 2023 that the backlog was caused mostly by COVID-19, which constituted “good cause” for the delays. The S.F. Public Defender contends that while COVID-19 was an initial factor in the delays, the court has been unacceptably slow to re-open sufficient courtroom space for trials since the San Francisco courthouses resumed jury trials in June 2021. In the months following re-opening, the court allowed multiple judges to take vacations and continued to leave its trial courtrooms half-empty.
“The right to a speedy trial is enshrined in the Constitution for a reason,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju. “It is a sacred right. But too many people in San Francisco are waiting months and years, often in jail or shackled to 24/7 ankle monitors, just to get that chance. We appreciate that Civil Rights Corps has joined our efforts to challenge this backlog, and urge the California Supreme Court to take up this urgent matter.”
While other counties in California have addressed COVID-related trial backlogs by opening additional courtrooms, mobilizing personnel to conduct trials, and dismissing cases that went beyond the speedy trial deadline, San Francisco’s court has failed to adjust its operations to adjudicate or dismiss overdue trials. The court continues to use COVID as an excuse, even though virtually all public health restrictions have been lifted.
The California Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to review the Estrada case in the coming weeks.
Petition for Review_Submitted to CA Supreme Court_ To review the decision of the Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District Division One, Nos. A166474, A166508; included on p.36 of the Petition is the First Appellate District Division’s published opinion from 3/27/23.
Civil Rights Corps_Amicus Brief filed in support of the Public Defender’s Office Petition to Review.