Judges: Even in quarantine, county inmates get court hearings

The jail now must give medically isolated inmates a way to attend virtual court, two judges ruled, citing the Sixth Amendment.

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EVERETT — As the omicron variant surged, some inmates at the Snohomish County Jail the past couple weeks appeared at court hearings from behind bars.

In light of recent court rulings, jail guards started bringing laptops and phones from cell to cell so inmates in quarantine could virtually show up to court and speak with their lawyers.

Glass panes separated the inmates and a laptop web camera. Inmates on camera could see and hear people in the courtroom, and people in the courtroom could see and hear the inmate.

The new system was the jail’s response to Superior Court and District Court orders late last month ruling the jail’s pandemic protocols violated the Sixth Amendment.

In late January, defense attorneys in the county voiced frustrations, saying they had no way to communicate with incarcerated clients who were in medical isolation because of COVID-19. There were no phones or tablets in quarantine units, said Kathleen Kyle, managing director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association.

That meant court dates were postponed until inmates were released from isolation.

Kyle said a lack of legal guidance can have drastic implications. So much hinges on the outcome of bail hearings, she said.

“Will the defendant get out and be able to defend themselves in the community,” Kyle said, “or will they remain behind bars? Are they going to lose their job? Is their car going to be impounded? Are they going to lose their elder care? Their child care?”

In her order Jan. 21, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Anita Farris wrote the jail’s COVID-19 protocols violated the U.S. Constitution and state court rules.

“Delaying the first preliminary appearance for many days and not allowing contact with counsel is not necessary for health and safety reasons,” Farris wrote, because the jail can provide electronic means for inmates to communicate with legal counsel without leaving their cells.

“The jail must be providing food on dishes, laundry and removing garbage from an inmate’s cell,” Farris wrote. “It would not significantly increase health risks to give the defendant a mobile phone, tablet or laptop computer to use for the reasonable periods necessary to communicate with counsel and for a short court hearing.”

On Jan. 27, Everett District Court Judge Anthony Howard issued a similar order directing the jail to provide inmates in quarantine with a way to communicate with lawyers and to appear in court.

He likewise called the jail’s COVID protocols unconstitutional, even if “they are well-intended and likely effective in minimizing the spread of a virus.”

“The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution entitled Defendant to the assistance of counsel,” Howard wrote. “Attorneys can effectively assist clients only if they are permitted to communicate with those clients.”

Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell said he supported the courts’ decisions to ensure incarcerated people have access to legal counsel. He said for the past two years, jail staff have been focused on health solutions.

“I think they’ve done pretty well in terms of safety,” Cornell said. “We haven’t had the same level of outbreaks as other jurisdictions have seen.”

Two years ago, the number of inmates housed at the jail was roughly 950. On Friday, that number was 430. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the prosecutor’s office has had a temporary policy to release some inmates held on non-violent and non-sexual offenses.

On Friday, six inmates were known to be infected with COVID. That number came from a daily report sent out by the jail’s health services administrator.

Meanwhile, in Superior Court there was one trial going on this week, Cornell said. The prosecutor said he hopes the courts get back to doing trials more regularly, “provided it’s safe and doesn’t adversely impact the court and its stakeholders.”

During the peak of the omicron variant, Cornell had called on the Superior Court’s presiding judge to suspend trials. That never happened.

Lately, the county has seen a downward trend in confirmed COVID cases.

“It is a balance of public health and public safety,” Cornell said, “assuring the constitutional rights of those who commit crimes are met.”

Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; edennis@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @reporterellen.

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