Courting Injustice: Why are so many local court cases being dismissed?
Since October, more than 1,700 court cases have been dismissed in Riverside County. These dismissals include cases involving child sexual assault, attempted murder, DUIs, and domestic violence.
This is due to a backlog caused by the pandemic. Riverside Superior Court officials cited a lack of available judicial resources and courtroom space as they reinstated defendants' constitutional rights to receive a speedy trial.
News Channel 3's Angela Chen discovered that the Coachella Valley saw a disproportionately high number of cases dismissed.
Of the 1,769 cases dismissed in Riverside County, nearly 70 percent were from the Larson Justice Center in Indio, according to the Riverside County District Attorney's Office.
By the numbers, that means you are less likely to get justice for a crime here in the Coachella Valley. So why is it that the Coachella Valley makes up 15 percent of Riverside County but made up about 70 percent of the cases dismissed?
"It's the mindset, the attitude of the bench specifically that works in the Larson Justice Center that is more willing to dismiss cases than some of their colleagues across the rest of the county," said Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin.
The judges of Riverside Superior Court refused to give New Channel 3 an interview but offered comments in email through spokesperson Marita Ford in response to questions about Coachella Valley’s unusually high dismissals. In part, the response addressed the valley's dismissals by claiming the "high proportion" of out-of-custody misdemeanor cases in the desert area “have the lowest priority under the law” for courtroom assignments.
The court also said Riverside County has not had enough judges for decades to keep up with the growing population. They blame the state, saying the county is 22 judge position allocations short of the number needed to handle the county's caseload.
Though all counties across California had backlog issues, dismissals only happened here in Riverside County. On October 7 of last year, with Covid-19 receding, Riverside Superior Court judges said Sixth Amendment speedy trial rights now applied.
A speedy trial requires legal time limits for completing various stages of a case.
The presiding judge at the time, the Honorable John Monterosso, wrote in a press release that a judge shortage was "not good cause to continue a criminal case" beyond the statutory deadline -- which means defendants who had their trial delayed because of Covid got their cases dismissed.
"The judges unnecessarily and carelessly began to submit a policy of mass dismissals and it's led to people not finding justice," Hestrin said.
As of March 2023, nearly 1,800 cases have been dismissed in Riverside County.
"We have to be very clear with the public, those misdemeanors are gone. They cannot be refiled. There would have to be a change in the law, in the Constitution, perhaps an amendment to the Constitution. I think these cases are gone forever," Hestrin said.
In a press release, the judges of Riverside Superior Court also lay part of the blame with the DA's office, saying the court system depends on most cases settling prior to trial and that when the actions of the district attorney and defense "do not function to maintain the necessary level of case resolution pre- trial, no court will be able to manage the total number of trials before it..."
But Hestrin says defendants now know about the dismissals and are willing to take their chances by not settling.
"I call it the dismissal lottery. So defendants come into the system now. They hear the courts are doling out dismissals, high number of cases. I'm going to take my chances. I don't want to plead guilty even though I know maybe I know I did it," Hestrin said.
And these dismissals could keep happening because Riverside County is still backed up with hundreds of cases, according to the DA.
Riverside Superior Court says it's doing what it can like mandatory settlement programs, using retired judges, and redesignating some departments to hear criminal trials.
But for many, it's too little, too late.
There is now a new presiding judge, the Honorable Judith Clark, and the DA's office says under her leadership, they are already seeing more proactive initiative from the courts to address the backlog.