Attorneys, staff, and public endangered by crowded courts

Inmate appearances pose unnecessary risk, say defense attorneys

By: - November 25, 2020 6:48 am

The hallway at the Las Vegas Justice Court Tuesday. (Courtesy photo)

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police and Las Vegas Justice Court officials have ignored a simple means of limiting the spread of COVID-19 to jail staff, court employees, and the public since courts re-opened to the public in June, according to some attorneys and judges in Las Vegas Justice Court.  

Each day the court is open, police transport hundreds of in-custody defendants in shackles a few blocks via van from the Clark County Detention Center to the Regional Justice Center, where they are paraded through back hallways on their way to a holding cell, and eventually into a courtroom packed with attorneys, defendants and others.  

In a letter sent Tuesday to Justice Court Chief Judge Suzan Baucum, Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice President Sarah Hawkins complains the “bare-minimum protections” practiced in the jail to protect inmates “are rendered irrelevant when defendants are transported for Justice Court proceedings at the Regional Justice Center.”

“At every step the six-foot physical distancing required by Governor Sisolak’s ‘Nevada Guidance for Safe Gatherings; is not, and indeed cannot, be enforced,” Hawkins wrote.

Some judges attend to the in-custody defendants before opening the courtroom doors to throngs waiting in the hallway.  Others, such as Justice Diana Sullivan, admit out-of-custody defendants as they arrive, hear their cases, and send them on their way.  

“We do this purposefully so that people don’t stack up out in the hallway,” says Sullivan, who says she and her colleagues each hear at least 60 to 80 cases each morning. 

“Last Thursday when I walked in the courtroom I saw that the hallway was filled with people waiting to be let into the courtroom,” says Public Defender Alison Coombs.  “No social distancing was possible because of the amount of people that had hearings that day.” 

“If at all possible, please be cognizant of the number of people in your courtroom at any given time,” Baucum wrote in an email Nov. 17 to her colleagues on the Justice Court bench, asking them to limit occupancy to “under 25 at any given time.” 

“With the recent increase of Covid 19 cases it is of paramount importance to maintain social distancing in an effort to stop the spread of the virus and to assure community partners feel adequately protected and safe,” Baucum told judges. 

But some attorneys contend the 25-person limit is unreasonable. They say there’s simply no reason to hold court in-person during a pandemic. Baucum has not responded to requests for comment. 

“The in-custodies are chained to each other, no social distancing, often up to 30 defendants. They are often wearing their masks improperly,” says Coombs, who says mask enforcement is lax. “There are a number of private defense attorneys who have refused to wear masks.”  

On Monday, Clark County announced it’s closing public facilities, including courts, to the public for at least three weeks, offering a partial reprieve.  

But why not eliminate more risk by holding at least some proceedings for in-custody defendants via video?  

On Tuesday, District Court Chief Judge Linda Bell issued an order prohibiting in-person court appearances.

District Courts, Family Court and outlying courts have been using video, says Officer Larry Hadfield, a spokesman for Metro, which is in charge of transporting inmates.  But the vast majority of in-custody defendants appear in Justice Court, where they are arraigned and appear for preliminary hearing.

Hadfield says every inmate entering the jail is tested for COVID-19 and housed in intake modules for five days pending test results. Inmates are screened daily by the jail’s medical vendor for symptoms of COVID or the flu. The jail maintains “routine briefing with the Health District.” 

In April, Sheriff Joe Lombardo imposed a jail depopulation policy that remains in effect. 

“The safety and well-being of our employees is a top priority. We also have a tremendous responsibility and legal duty to inmates in our custody,” Lombardo said at the time. 

Coombs says Las Vegas Justice Court “did a pretty decent job of imposing safety protocols” at the beginning of the pandemic. 

“They moved all arraignments to a video calendar so the only inmates being transported to the courtroom were the preliminary hearing clients,” Coombs says. “Back in June, they opened back up and really did not have any protocols in place except requiring people to wear face coverings and enforcing some social distancing in the courtroom for out of custody clients.” 

Coombs is not the only public defender with concerns. Several have reportedly filed complaints with OSHA. None have appeared on OSHA’s website, which updates complaints every two weeks.  

“Where we sit, private counsel and defendants will end up standing very close to us,” says Coombs. “The difference in the protocols in District Court compared to Justice Court is stark.” 

In July, five marshals who work in District Court at the RJC, tested positive for COVID-19.  

Before Tuesday’s order prohibiting in-person court appearances, District Court had put most jury trials on hold and had turned to video hearings for other matters.

“The detention center and court system are talking about increasing the use of technology in criminal proceedings,” says Clark County spokeswoman Stacy Welling. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, use of videoconferencing and other technologies has increased and we are continuing to look for ways to expand it.”

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, two grandsons, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.