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Hundreds of San Francisco criminal cases dismissed after years of delays

Neither the District Attorney’s office nor the Public Defender is happy about the dismissals, and they point the finger at the courts, who say ending the backlog is a group effort.

A line of lawyers wait to have their cases heard in court.
Defense attorneys wait in line at Department 17 in the Hall of Justice in San Francisco on Friday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Since mid-January, the San Francisco district attorney has been forced on a daily basis to dismiss dozens of years-old criminal cases that had become mired in the judicial system as a result of earlier Covid restrictions.

The cases are being cast out because the delays violated the accused’s right to a speedy trial. In many cases, prosecutors were unprepared for trial as witnesses and victims proved uncooperative or were nowhere to be found after years of court inaction. 

A computer display of cases.
A screen displays cases on the docket for the morning at Department 17 in the Hall of Justice in San Francisco on Friday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

In May 2023, Brenda Carroll was charged with domestic violence and elder abuse for allegedly getting into a drunken scuffle with her boyfriend and a man she was caring for after a day of swilling wine. 

By law, she was supposed to go to trial no later than 30 days after her first appearance in court, rather than wait nine months.

On Wednesday, she finally walked into a San Francisco courtroom expecting a trial. Minutes later, she walked back out with a smile on her face, her case dismissed. 

“It’s just been a nightmare,” she said of the case’s length. “It’s been really hard to go this long” with the case hanging over her head. 

Carroll’s case is one of 705 misdemeanor cases that, as of Jan. 2, had languished in court due to a 4-year-old backlog of cases. An unresolved lawsuit filed by the public defender against the court alleged the delays were violating defendants’ constitutional rights. 

The case dismissals began in late January and come amid noisy political debates about who—police, prosecutors, politicians, the courts or others—are handling crime in the city.

The court’s recent action to begin clearing the backlog, the Public Defender’s Office says, is better than nothing.

People fill the hall outside of a courtroom.
People fill the halls outside Department 17 in the Hall of Justice in San Francisco on Friday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“While we’ve seen some progress in misdemeanor cases in recent weeks,” said Deputy Public Defender Jacque Wilson, “it remains unclear how the court plans to sustain its efforts to fully alleviate the backlog.”

The district attorney, whose prosecutors have been forced to dismiss dozens of cases on a daily basis, blamed the courts for letting so many cases continue for so long.

“The courts have the power to ensure a defendant’s right to a timely trial is honored. The courts are responsible for addressing the backlog,” DA Brooke Jenkins said. “It is unclear why they continued hundreds of cases past the statutory deadlines without establishing a legal basis. Nevertheless, this problem must be resolved by the court.”

San Francisco Superior Court administrators said in a statement that the courts have been in communication with all parties about the new policy addressing the backlog but did not say why each case is being dealt with individually instead of dismissed en masse.

“The Court will continue to collaborate with the parties to address this COVID-related backlog of cases in our court, which historically has handled one of the highest number of misdemeanor trial dockets across the state,” the court’s statement said.

But Jenkins said that it is not her office’s responsibility to “proactively dismiss” cases the court allowed to continue for too long. Rather, she said it is the court’s place to decide if a defendant’s rights have been violated. 

Backlog blues

San Francisco’s superior court is in the same boat as much of the state, which had huge case backlogs by the end of the pandemic. Some of the San Francisco cases are from 2020.

Other jurisdictions have dealt with the backlog by dismissing cases en masse. For example, judges in Riverside County dismissed more than 1,000 backlogged cases in 2022 over the objections of prosecutors. 

The outside of a courthouse.
The court system and district attorney are trying to get through a backlog of court cases going back years, to the beginning of the pandemic. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

San Francisco Superior Court, which reopened in June 2021, until recently continued to justify not calling old cases to trial, citing the long-over Covid emergency. This was done even though the state judicial council ended emergency Covid orders allowing remote hearings, extended deadlines and other rule changes in 2022. 

Public Defender Manohar Raju sued the court in 2021. He alleged it was violating the constitutional right to a speedy trial of more than 1,000 defendants—some who remained in jail—whose cases were routinely being continued. The case remains in litigation.

A man stands in court.
Prosecutor Amine Zreik appears at Department 17 at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco on Friday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

At its peak, San Francisco had a roughly 400-case felony backlog. More than 50 remain unresolved, according to the Public Defender’s Office. Now, the old misdemeanor cases are being dealt with.

In January, the San Francisco court prioritized the backlogged cases by setting aside courtrooms and having ready jury pools for when judges began calling old cases to trial.

Defendants like Carroll have repeatedly come to court, only to be told they have to come back later. Victims, meanwhile, have had to face the prospect of their alleged perpetrators never seeing justice.

Mass dismissals 

On Friday morning, Department 17 in the city’s criminal courthouse at 850 Bryant St. was filled with lawyers and their clients, all ready for trial. 

As a line of attorneys stood ready for their cases to be called, the bailiff repeatedly had to hush the chatter in the courtroom, where more than 30 people—many of them defendants—sat waiting. 

Deputy Public Defender Daniel Meyer approached the lectern with his client Emerson Deras-Gonzalez, who was charged with a DUI in 2020. Meyers indicated to Judge Victor Hwang that his client, who had already appeared six times in court, was ready for trial. 

“Are the people ready for trial?” asked Hwang. 

The people were not. 

Assistant Deputy District Attorney Amine Zreik read from a script that laid the blame on the court, pointing out that up until several weeks ago, the court had said it would waive all decisions in such cases until the outcome of the Raju litigation.

Despite his own protests, Zreik eventually dismissed the case. 

“The outcome would eventually be overturned on appeal based on the” defendant’s right to a speedy trial, Zreik said. “The people are not ready to proceed.”

Attorneys wait to have their cases heard in court.
Defendant Emerson Deras-Gonzalez, in a black hoodie, had his case dismissed as defense attorneys waited in line at Department 17 in the Hall of Justice in San Francisco on Friday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

California Penal Code 1382 defines the time a defendant has to wait for a fair and speedy trial and governs the remedy—which is dismissal in many cases—if the case goes beyond the legal time limit. In Deras-Gonzalez’s case, it was nearly 43 months past its one-month trial deadline.

Throughout the morning’s proceedings, Hwang responded to prosecutors’ objections by explaining that the court’s policy on backlogged cases had changed in mid-January, and both the district attorney and the public defender had been told as much. 

Hwang said in court that he sends each office lists of cases he plans to call for trial. 

The case was one of at least six dismissed that morning by the District Attorney’s Office on grounds that prosecutors were not ready for trial or could not locate witnesses or that the victims in the case were not willing to cooperate after waiting years for the case to come to trial. 

Three people stand in court talking.
Judge Victor Hwang, left, consults with counsel in Department 17 at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco on Friday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

But a handful of other old cases were either sent to trial or continued again, in one case because the victim had come to court.

In the matter of Scott Riley, who faces a sexual battery charge, Hwang made an exception by again continuing the case, giving the district attorney more time to prepare for trial after the victim said she wanted the case to proceed. 

“I’m gonna give you 10 days to get ready for trial,” Hwang ruled.

Correction: A caption in this story was updated with the proper spelling of defendant Emerson Deras-Gonzalez‘s name.