×

Prosecutors, public defenders adapt to COVID-19 constraints

Low-level nonviolent alleged criminals given citations, post June 1 court dates

WAILUKU — People accused of nonviolent lower-level crimes are being cited and given dates after June 1 to appear in court, as officials take steps to counter the coronavirus pandemic and reduce the number of people showing up at state courthouses.

Maui County Prosecuting Attorney Don Guzman said police are continuing to make arrests of felony offenders, as well as suspects in family abuse and DUI cases.

He said those charged with nonviolent misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor crimes are being cited rather than arrested.

“It’s not lawlessness that’s going on,” Guzman said Monday. “We’re still doing our job. We’re going to be focusing on violent crimes.”

He said the prosecutor’s office is following orders issued last week by state Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, who first limited in-court appearances, then ordered state courthouses closed, except for official business.

The closure took effect Monday, with Judiciary employees questioning people as they entered Hoapili Hale, the state courthouse building in Wailuku.

Second Circuit Chief Judge Richard Bissen and 2nd Circuit Judge Peter Cahill issued orders postponing hearings beyond April 30 for out-of-custody defendants who were scheduled to be in court between Monday and April 3. Attorneys representing such defendants are required to call the courtrooms to obtain new hearing dates and times. Defense attorneys also are responsible for notifying their clients and the deputy prosecutor assigned to the case.

Danielle Sears, acting supervising deputy public defender for Maui County, asked that clients with court dates scheduled through April 30 call the office at 984-5018 so attorneys can help them reschedule their cases.

In both the public defender’s and prosecutor’s office, some attorneys are working from home.

“Those who can work from home are doing so,” Guzman said.

In addition, all four 2nd Circuit courtrooms are equipped with videoconferencing capabilities, so deputy prosecutors can appear in court by videoconference instead of in person, said First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Robert Rivera.

“There’s no need for appearances by any of our deputies,” he said.

On Monday, that was the case in Judge Bissen’s courtroom. In Judge Cahill’s courtroom, a deputy prosecutor ended up having to go to the courthouse because the videoconferencing system wasn’t working.

Sears said deputy public defenders are continuing to go to court to meet with and be there for defendants. She said the goal is to have just one deputy public defender in each courtroom, although at times there may be two.

Attorneys said plans call for one Circuit and one District courtroom to be operating during the emergency. It’s anticipated that inmates also will make court appearances by videoconference.

“The goal is to have no person being held in custody coming to the courthouse,” Rivera said.

In a news release Monday, the state Department of Public Safety said no inmates have met criteria to be under investigation for COVID-19.

Effective Monday afternoon, the department suspended inmate work furlough passes, in addition to job-seeking and resocialization furlough passes that were suspended last week. Hawaii Correctional Industries outside community service work lines also were suspended.

Inside correctional centers, nonessential programming was suspended.

With personal visits for inmates temporarily on hold, inmates are being allowed an unlimited number of prepaid and collect personal phone calls, with the duration of the calls increased from 15 minutes to up to 30 minutes. In addition, GlobalTel Link is providing two free five-minute calls per week for the next four weeks.

The Hawaii Paroling Authority suspended all parole hearings until April 3.

Guzman noted that in addition to following Judiciary directives, the prosecutor’s office is following Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino’s emergency orders, which designate the office as essential.

Guzman said he has implemented office sanitation procedures, reminding employees to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer.

“Right now, we’re just trying to make sure everyone’s safe, and we can try to flat line that curve and allow medical professionals to catch up,” Guzman said. “It’s unprecedented. It’s for real.

“If we don’t use social discipline, this thing is really going to get out of hand.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.