Public Health Trumps Speed: California Court of Appeal Holds that COVID-19 Constitutes Good Cause To Continue Trial

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Summary of Ruling

In Stanley v. Sup. Ct. of Contra Costa County, criminal defendant Rodric Stanley filed a petition for writ of mandate and prohibition challenging an order of the California Superior Court, Contra Costa County, denying his motion to dismiss on speedy trial grounds based on the Governor’s executive order and the Chief Justice’s statewide emergency orders effectively continuing the statutory deadline for his trial by 90 days. On June 9, 2020, the Court of Appeal, First District, Division 4, denied the petition, holding that: (1) the COVID-19 pandemic constituted good cause to continue defendant's trial; (2) the trial continuance did not violate Stanley’s right to access courts; and (3) Stanley's prolonged pretrial detention did not violate due process. Although this ruling was made in the context of a criminal matter, its reasoning and impact certainly also apply to civil business and commercial litigation.

Factual Background and Analysis

In March 2019, the People of the State of California charged Stanley with four felony counts of sexual intercourse or sodomy with a child 10 years old or younger, one count of detention of a minor by a person with a right to custody or visitation, and several enhancements. A jury trial commenced on August 15, 2019. However, the trial court declared a mistrial on August 19, 2019, due to the People’s late disclosure of discovery. The trial court set a new trial for April 20, 2020, and Stanley waived his statutory right to a speedy trial until that date. Pursuant to the 10-day grace period in Penal Code section 1382, subdivision (a)(2)(B), the last day for defendant’s trial was April 30, 2020.

In response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the Governor of California and the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court issued a series of orders beginning in March 2020 that permit the extension of the time within which state criminal trials must commence. On May 4, 2020, defendant filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the extension of his trial date violated his right to a speedy trial. The superior court denied the motion. The superior court explained that the Chief Justice’s orders were “lawful and valid extensions under the states of emergency and public health crisis.” In addition, the superior court determined there was good cause under Penal Code section 1382, subdivision (a) to extend the trial date. The court set defendant’s jury trial for July 13, 2020, and stated the last day for the start of trial under Penal Code section 1382 is July 29, 2020.

Stanley challenged the trial court’s order by filing a petition for writ of mandate and prohibition in the Court of Appeal. Stanley argued that the Governor’s executive order and the Chief Justice’s statewide emergency orders, which effectively continued the statutory last day for defendant’s trial by 90 days, are unauthorized by statute and violate separation of powers principles. In a succinct opinion, the Court of Appeal expressed doubt as to the merit of Stanley’s contentions but emphasized that the petition could be resolved on a much simpler basis: the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact within California independently supported the superior court’s finding of good cause to continue the trial.

The Court of Appeal explained that quarantines to prevent the spread of infectious diseases have long been recognized as good cause for continuing a trial date, and that the COVID-19 pandemic is of such severity as to justify a 90-day continuance. The Court of Appeal recognized that despite state and local shelter-in-place orders throughout the country, including in California and Contra Costa County, according to the Center for Disease Control there have been almost two million cases of COVID-19 in the country and over 110,000 deaths caused by the virus. California itself has seen nearly 130,000 cases and over 4,600 deaths. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Cases in the US [as of June 9, 2020].) Citing to the most recent order issued by California Supreme Court Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye: “[C]ourts are clearly places of high risk during this pandemic because they require gatherings of judicial officers, court staff, litigants, attorneys, witnesses, defendants, law enforcement, and juries—well in excess of the numbers allowed for gathering under current executive and health orders.”

The Court of Appeal continued, “[T]the trial court unquestionably was justified in finding that the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes good cause to continue defendant’s trial until July 13, 2020, with a statutory deadline of July 29. Given the grave risks to court personnel, jurors, attorneys, and the defendant himself that would be created by proceeding in accordance with the normal timeline, any other conclusion would have been unreasonable in the extreme. While we acknowledge the unfortunate hardship to the defendant from this delay, neither the prosecution nor the court are responsible for the emergency that has overwhelmed the nation and much of the world, and at this time, ‘[p]ublic health concerns trump the right to a speedy trial’ (citation).”

The Court of Appeal concluded by rejecting Stanley’s contention that the continuance has violated his constitutional right to access the courts and to due process (U.S. Const., 1st Amend.; Cal. Const., art. I, § 3.) The Court of Appeal explained that Stanley “has not been denied access to the courts, as reflected by the very consideration of his speedy trial motion. His trial has only been continued, as necessitated by the current public health crisis. And his due process rights have not been violated due to his prolonged pretrial detention during the pandemic.” The Court of Appeal said that the government “may permissibly detain a person suspected of committing a crime prior to a formal adjudication of guilt,” (citation) and noted that Stanley had not alleged that the conditions of his confinement pose a particular health risk to him that would raise constitutional issues.

The case is Stanley v. Superior Court of Contra Costa County, --- Cal.Rptr.3d ---- (2020), 2020 WL 3056181.

What COVID-19 and this Decision Mean for Commercial Businesses in Civil Litigations

COVID-19 presents an unprecedented global pandemic. Courts have limited resources and must prioritize emergencies, urgencies, and criminal matters ahead of non-urgent civil business and commercial litigation. Under Stanley, criminal trials can be continued and delayed for reasons of health and safety. Unquestionably, even more so civil business and commercial litigation and civil trials can be continued and delayed. Civil litigants need to be aware of the heavy burden facing courts and must assess the impact on pending litigation. Courts will need time to work through not only the backlog, but also the anticipated spike in criminal and civil actions arising from COVID-19. The impacts will be numerous and far reaching. For instance, some courts will limit hearings and oral arguments. Many courts will be less receptive to non-urgent discovery disputes and motions. Many courts will actively encourage parties to settle. Non-urgent trials may be delayed many months. All that is certain is that that COVID-19 has disrupted court operations, access and speed. Businesses and commercial litigants -- and their lawyers -- need to plan accordingly.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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