LOS ANGELES (CN) — As Los Angeles County hurtles to another severe stay-at-home lockdown due to a post-holiday Covid-19 surge, attorneys and clients want eviction trials and other court hearings to be put on hold because they say courtrooms are too crowded.
On Friday, a group of eviction defense attorneys and their clients made their plea outside a downtown LA courthouse, just days after public health officials stressed the need to avoid contact with strangers in enclosed spaces.
LA County Superior Court mandates the use of masks, spaces out seating and follows other rules to slow the spread of the virus. But that’s a tepid response when people sit in a courtroom without windows and next to strangers for several hours at a time.
In recent weeks, LA County Public Health confirmed seven cases of Covid-19 at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Lynn Byers, who has been fighting her eviction case in court for the last several months. “There are no temperature checks at the doors. People walk about with their masks under their noses. Nobody is policing it.”
To Byers, the courthouse feels like an unsafe environment and a judge has refused to postpone her trial date.
“I just watch them move ahead with the trial. I have a 90-year-old mother I sometimes take care of and the court can’t just wait a few months until this Covid situation dies down?” Byers said outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse while wearing a cloth face mask and plastic eyeglasses.
She was surrounded by many more tenants and attorneys who argue the courts appear to exist in world separate from reality.
As of Thursday, over 420,000 Angelenos have tested positive for the virus and over 7,700 have died since the start of the pandemic. On Friday, the county reported 8,860 new cases and 60 deaths in a single day.
In March, LA County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile suspended all non-emergency court hearings when little was known about the virus. But by October, jury trials for unlawful detainer or eviction cases had resumed.
In the last month, LA residents like Byers watched as Covid-19 cases soared to record-breaking heights.
Hospitals are on the verge of being inundated with Covid-19 patients and the persistent, widespread rate of infection forced health officials in late November to close outdoor dining at restaurants and limit other activities.
But county courthouses continue to operate with new infection control guidelines that many say don’t go far enough.
New guidelines and signage are now in place inside courthouses. Masks are mandatory, hand sanitizer dispensers are spread throughout courtrooms and stickers designate seating.
Still, elevators and hallways are crowded with people and eviction courts will see even more traffic in the coming months.
That’s because eviction protections put in place by county officials and state lawmakers will expire in early 2021. For eviction defense attorneys like John Ward with the tenant rights organization Basta Inc., that means a big backlog of eviction cases will force more people — mainly low-income people of color — into crowded courtrooms for hours at a time.
“If it’s unsafe in a church, then it’s unsafe in a courtroom,” Ward said, referring to the county’s health order that prohibits indoor worship services.
Ward said he expect the glut of evictions that will take place next year due to the economic downturn brought by the virus will place him and his clients in harm’s way.
The court has responded in some capacity by providing emergency extensions for criminal trials and juvenile hearings in recent days. In a statement, Brazile said extending deadlines would give court staff the flexibility to reduce the number of people in a courtroom at a given time.
“The court is taking decisive actions this week to limit the number of persons in courthouses while seeking to balance its obligations to render justice with its duty to protect all who visit and work in its courthouses,” said Brazile.
Virtual appearances are possible for some hearings, but if someone doesn’t have access to internet or needs an interpreter, they’re left with few options other than to attend court in person.
Some attorneys say while they and their clients are required to wait in crowded courtrooms with other people, judges often appear via video from their chambers.
“I live in fear to come to court,” said Elizabeth Hernandez, a tenant who is fighting her eviction case at the downtown LA courthouse. “And no one is doing anything to protect us.”
The LA County Superior Court did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The coalition that sent the letter to the court requesting more transparency with the Covid-19 infection guidelines and a temporary suspension of court hearings includes the Eviction Defense Network, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Basta Inc., Public Counsel, Court Watch LA and many more.
The groups say the court has not responded to their demands.