(CN) - The California Supreme Court on Monday dismissed 18 criminal cases, including two felonies, in Riverside County, citing a shortage of judges and courtrooms to accommodate the county's burgeoning population.
The justices unanimously rejected county prosecutors' claim that the trials should have been delayed rather than dismissed.
"[T]he basis for the delay was not the unavailability of counsel but rather the unavailability of a judge or courtroom to try defendant's case within the presumptive statutory period," Chief Justice Ronald George wrote. "Past California decisions establish that when the unavailability of a judge or courtroom is fairly attributable to the fault or neglect of the state, such unavailability does not constitute good cause" to put off a trial.
The state high court upheld the trial court's finding that "the lack of available courtrooms and judges was attributable to the Legislature's failure to provide a number of judges and courtrooms sufficient to meet the rapidly growing population in Riverside County."
This shortage forced the trial court to dismiss the two felony and 16 misdemeanor charges against defendants who refused to waive their right to a speedy trial.
Riverside County prosecutors argued that the criminal cases should have been assigned to juvenile, probate or even family law judges.
But George said trial courts are not required "to grant preference to the trial of every criminal matter over every civil matter in all circumstances." Doing so would "have the effect of compelling a trial court to devote all of its resources exclusively to the resolution of criminal cases and to abandon entirely its responsibility to provide for the fair administration of civil as well as criminal matters," he wrote.
George, who has repeatedly pressed legislators for more judges, said the county's "congested criminal caseload represented a chronic condition."
"The courts are just overwhelmed by both the exponential growth in population and by some extent to the district attorney's charging policy," County Deputy Public Defender William Meronek told the Los Angeles Times. "They tend to pursue everything, and they are reluctant to plea bargain or negotiate any settlement."
Meronek said Monday's ruling would end prosecution for as many as 300 other cases on appeal after they were dismissed due to the shortage of judges.
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