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Law360 (April 3, 2020, 8:18 PM EDT) -- The Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit has suspended Speedy Trial Act rules in the Southern District of California, extending the deadline requiring criminal trials to occur within 70 days to within 180 days, prompting concerns by attorneys for immigrants who are being detained without bond.
U.S. Circuit Court Judge Sidney R. Thomas on Thursday signed the order suspending the Speedy Trial Act requirements in the Southern District of California, which includes San Diego and Imperial counties and their more than 3 million residents.
The Speedy Trial Act of 1974 establishes time limits for completing the stages of a federal criminal prosecution. The order targets a rule that requires criminal trials to occur within 70 days of when charges are filed publicly against a defendant.
The order also extends a 30-day judicial emergency that was entered in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak from 30 days to more than a year, through April 17, 2021, and notes that the pandemic has further stressed the district, which is already bearing a heavy caseload.
According to a report attached to Judge Thomas' order, the Southern District of California has about 1,000 cases per judgeship and five judicial vacancies that have yet to be filled. The report says the majority of pending cases are criminal, and the district ranks fifth in the nation for criminal felony filings.
"The district has extremely busy ports of entry along the southwest border of Mexico, which generates a significant number of federal criminal cases involving immigration, drugs and customs offenses," the report says.
Recently prosecutors have also pursued more arrests along the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration's "Operation Streamline" initiative, which has added to the influx of criminal filings in the district and made it more difficult to adhere to social distancing rules put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the report says.
"The sheer volume of Operation Streamline makes it impossible to promote the safety of the court and defendants while abiding by the current small gathering and physical distancing guidelines," the report says.
The report also notes that the district has called for more judgeships to deal with the "congested court," but the requests haven't been answered. Currently, the district is operating only three open courts, and it can't seek visiting judge designations due to the coronavirus, according to the report.
Former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani, who now runs his own private practice West Coast Trial Lawyers, said the decision to suspend the Speedy Trial Act rules is almost unprecedented and a cause for concern, because the vast majority of federal criminal defendants in San Diego and El Centro are detained without bond pending trial.
As a result, he said, defendants will spend additional months in prison in close quarters and they could be exposed to COVID-19.
"Releasing dangerous criminals into the streets is not an option, but this crisis was caused in large part by the Department of Justice's political decision to charge immigration offenses criminally, instead of handling them in immigration court or releasing those who are apprehended back into Mexico," Rahmani said.
Rahmani added that the Trump administration and U.S. Senate haven't helped the situation by failing to appoint and confirm judges to handle the influx of new cases along the southern border.
U.S. Attorney Robert S. Brewer Jr. of the Southern District of California said Friday that although it sounds consequential, the order will have a limited impact on how the courts operate in the district.
"The order does not extend the chief judge's temporary suspension of jury trials, but merely invokes an emergency provision of the Speedy Trial to extend the time period for bringing a case to trial from 70 days to 180 days," Brewer said. "All the other Speedy Trial Act deadlines remain in place, and individual judges continue to retain the discretion to extend those deadlines, on a case-by-case basis, for the ends of justice."
--Editing by Nicole Bleier.
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