San Francisco’s Covid-19 emergency measure has been lifted for four months, but the city’s judges have not received the memo: It’s become standard for local Superior Court judges to routinely delay trial dates using a covid-era restriction.
Plus, public defenders contend, judges’ vacations and prosecutor requests are keeping courtrooms empty, meaning cases cannot be scheduled, adding to the delays.
That has kept 115 people behind bars as they are met with continual delays, and another 1,160 awaiting trial seemingly indefinitely, in violation of their Constitutional right to a speedy trial, the Public Defender’s Office says.
“Once the pandemic ended, people started going to concerts and cafes,” said Public Defender Mano Raju, elected to the role in 2019. “The first priority of this city should have been: Anyone who wants a jury trial should get it.”
To call attention to the backlog, staffers at the Public Defender’s Office have, for the last month, staged lunchtime sit-ins every Friday outside 850 Bryant St., the Hall of Justice and home to the criminal branch of the San Francisco Superior Court.
At 9 a.m. sharp on Tuesday, Lubungu Mapanda came with his wife, Latercia Mapanda, and seven of their eight children, ages 5 to 17, to Courtroom 17 at 850 Bryant, where judges send misdemeanor cases out to trial. They have been waiting for a trial date on a misdemeanor Mapanda was charged with in February 2022.
Mapanda moved to the Fillmore from Congo when he was 10. Tuesday’s court date was one of many times the family has called off their daily duties at home on Treasure Island to support the father in the courtroom.
After waiting over an hour, Mapanda — whose case stems from what he called a misunderstanding with neighbors — was again told to return for his court date, this time on Sept. 11. Around a dozen others were told the same.
In the hall, Mapanda was fuming.
Until a few months ago, he explained, he was working multiple jobs, driving for Uber and Lyft and delivering for DoorDash. In the turmoil of regular court appearances and no end date in sight, he lost his jobs. Mapanda now collects cans every day between midnight and 6 a.m.
“It makes you crazy,” said Latercia. “Every time we come, it’s another court date, another court date. It was like a month [after February 2022] he was supposed to get a court date. We’ve asked for a trial every time since then, and still haven’t received one.”
The delays are not simply a matter of inconvenience. They also tend to benefit prosecutors, who gain leverage over those accused of crimes, according to Raju. The majority of those awaiting trial have been accused of misdemeanor crimes, and a longer stay in jail could create incentive enough to plead guilty.
Public defenders contend that, without a speedy trial, “the only way out” of jail for most “is to accept whatever the prosecutor offers,” Raju said.
Judges sued, long vacations
In a turnabout, the judges now find themselves in the hot seat: Raju filed a lawsuit against the Superior Court of California in September 2021, arguing that the delays amounted to a violation of both the California and U.S. constitutions, which guarantee a speedy trial for anyone accused of a crime.
In early June, the California First District Court of Appeal found that the lawsuit could continue, slapping down an argument by the San Francisco Superior Court that Raju did not have standing to sue. The case now goes back to the lower Contra Costa Superior Court.
“There’s a backlog here, and at the Civic Center courthouse,” said Maria Avalos Cruz, a deputy public defender. “There are four courtrooms there for misdemeanor trials, but only two are being used right now.”
She gestured toward Lubungu Mapanda. “Everyone who works in the court gets paid, but most people who come here have to take off work. They don’t get paid for those days.”
People awaiting a court date typically have to be available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday the week of their court date, said Avalos Cruz. In many instances, she added, “they can get there, and they will be told there’s no courtroom for them. And they have to wait again.”
Since 2020, the backlog has only grown. In mid-2021, there were 429 people with pending criminal cases that had passed the 60-day statutory deadline for trial. As of 2023, that number has almost tripled.
Oliver Kroll, a deputy public defender, has analyzed the Superior Court’s trial backlog and found that, in a 10-month period between July 2021 and May 2022, courtrooms were empty 56 percent of the time.
Breaking down the reason for vacancies in a smaller, four-month period, he found that vacancies were “overwhelmingly caused by judicial vacations and routine absences,” not Covid; 59 percent of the vacancies during that period were due to judges’ vacations.
“You can go to a restaurant, you can get your haircut. The one thing you can’t do to save your life is get a speedy trial,” Koll said.
Defenders call for dismissals
Raju said his hope is that the lawsuit forces judges to dismiss cases that have gone beyond their last day. Prior to covid, the law stated that if a defendant wasn’t brought to trial within 60 days (30 for a misdemeanor), the case was to be dismissed.
“As public defenders, we don’t control what gets charged against our client,” said Raju as his colleagues demonstrated. “What we are able to control, and what we rely on the Constitution for, is when the trial happens.”
That power was taken away by the Judicial Council in 2020, which ordered a delay on trials for as long as covid lasted.
As a result, “our clients languish, they get hopeless, they get frustrated,” said Elizabeth Camacho, another public defender. And, most dangerous of all: “Clients lose faith in their defender.”
According to Raju, many are tempted to plead to crimes they did not commit, because they don’t know when their trial will happen.
“What we’re demanding is the opportunity to reveal truth and demand justice,” he said. “That only happens in a trial. When that’s taken away from us, it has an enormous impact.”
Additional reporting by Joe Rivano Barros.