Citing Covid Risk, Judge Orders House Arrest for Ex-Peru President

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Citing insufficient safeguards to protect older jail inmates with a heightened risk of severe illness or death from the Covid-19 virus, a federal judge on Thursday ordered the government to release a former Peruvian president on house arrest.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Hixson rejected federal prosecutors’ suggestion that Alejandro Toledo Manrique, facing potential extradition to Peru on corruption charges, should wait until there is a confirmed outbreak at San Mateo County’s Maguire Jail before seeking release.

“By then it may be too late,” Hixson wrote.

Alejandro Toledo, then the president of Peru, speaks at the 2003 annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. (World Economic Forum / Daniel Ammann)

Wanted in Peru for allegedly taking $20 million in bribes from a Brazilian construction company, Toledo claims the charges are false, politically motivated and based on coerced witness statements. Toledo led Peru’s government from 2001 to 2006. The 74-year-old was arrested in July.

Toledo filed an emergency motion this week arguing that because he is nearly 75 years old and suffers from hypertension, he is at “significantly higher risk” of death or serious illness from the pandemic virus.

Prosecutors countered in a filing Wednesday that Maguire Jail has taken “substantial precautionary measures” to lower the risk of infection among inmates and that the jail has no confirmed cases of the virus.

At a hearing conducted by telephone Thursday, U.S. prosecutor Elise LaPunzina said the jail’s precautionary steps are consistent with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Her arguments failed to convince Judge Hixson that the jail is safe for an elderly inmate.

“I saw San Mateo County’s management plan for the jail,” Hixson said at the hearing. “It looked to me as I was reviewing it that they were relying a lot on self-reporting and observation.”

When Judge Hixson asked if the jail has any tests to check if inmates are infected, LaPunzina said she did not know.

Because Covid-19 symptoms can take two to 14 days to surface after infection, screening people based on observable symptoms is “just a game of catch-up,” Hixson wrote in his ruling.

“The risk that this vulnerable person will contract Covid-19 while in jail is a special circumstance that warrants bail,” Hixson wrote.

However, the judge voiced concern as to whether a proposed $1 million bail package is adequate to deter the defendant from fleeing in light of findings that his wife hid assets from the court.

Toledo’s wife, Eliane Karp Toledo, was accused of hiding a $1 million bank account from the court’s Pretrial Services Office, which assesses flight risk for criminal defendants. Karp Toledo maintains she merely declined to volunteer that information and never sought to mislead the court or conceal details about her assets.

Karp Toledo’s lawyer said his client only has $700,000 at this time and that she needs a substantial portion of that to pay her own legal bills related to ongoing investigations in Peru and the United States. Hixson asked her to contribute $350,000 in cash toward her husband’s bail package. Her lawyer said she could only contribute $100,000.

Eight people in four states previously offered to post $1 million bail in the form of cash and property as collateral to help secure Toledo’s release.

On Thursday, Hixson required that half of the $1 million bail be secured in cash. Several of Toledo’s longtime friends offered to post a combined $325,000 in cash, according to Toledo’s public defender Graham Archer.  Hixson ordered Toledo’s wife to contribute another $175,000 to secure her husband’s release.

Hixson also required the $500,000 in cash be deposited with the court before the former head of state can be released. He further ordered Toledo to wear a GPS ankle monitor and for his wife to surrender her passports prior to his release.

Toledo was moved in October to a special housing unit in Maguire Jail after a U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria ordered the government to release Toledo from jail unless it could end his solitary confinement in a protective custody unit at Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail, where he was housed for about three months.

This month, Chhabria rejected Toledo’s renewed request for release from jail, finding conditions at the Maguire Jail – where Toledo had more access to an outdoor space and day rooms with TV sets and a telephone – did not qualify as a “special circumstance” that would justify his release.

According to prosecutors, Toledo was recently moved from the sheltered living unit at Maguire Jail – where he had a private cell, bathroom and day room – to a maximum-security unit that he shares with other inmates. That move was done to “keep the sheltered living unit available for any potential Covid-19 quarantine needs,” prosecutors said in a brief filed Wednesday.

Hixson denied prosecutors’ request to stay his decision to release Toledo pending appeal. Because it will take a few days for the court to receive the $500,000 in cash for his bail, the judge said the government will have adequate time to file its appeal and seek a stay from a federal judge.

On Friday, Chhabria denied the government’s appeal, stating he reviewed the case and “agrees fully with every aspect of Judge Hixson’s ruling.”

Toledo’s public defender, Archer, declined to comment after the hearing.

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