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SLO County DA expects "avalanche" of backed up cases once coronavirus restrictions lift

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Posted at 9:40 AM, Apr 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-27 12:40:10-04

Though many public spaces are closed due to the coronavirus, criminal cases are still being heard at the San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow said trials have been postponed, which he expects to result in an "avalanche" of trial dates when restrictions are lifted.

Some details of criminal cases are being dealt with virtually but hearing dates for many cases are being pushed further into the calendar.

"That's the new norm when we come to court, we expect cases to be continued," Ilan Funke-Bilu, a San Luis Obispo defense attorney, said.

Awaiting their next hearing, jailed defendants now communicate with their attorneys virtually.

"One of my new murder cases, we were already in quarantine rules when I first met him and not being able to come in, shake his hand and say I'll do everything I can to protect you -- that human interaction, you just don't get it when it's through the screen," Scott Taylor, a San Luis Obispo defense attorney said.

"It just adds another layer of discomfort in a process that's inherently uncomfortable," Funke-Bilu said.

One client of Taylor's was awaiting sentencing when his hearing date was postponed.

"We were ready to get this ruling then everything started getting continued because of coronavirus," Taylor said. "I know he has a lot of anxiety because there's nothing scarier than the unknown."

What these virtual meetings lack in face-to-face connection, Taylor said they make up for with convenience.

"Literally, when my client wants to talk to me and I get a text that they want to talk, I can either join or not, depends on where I am at the time," Taylor said.

For some low-level offenders, the governor's recent release order that aims to reduce the spread of coronavirus in crowded jails, means they can communicate with their attorneys from the comfort of home.

Though many cases have been delayed weeks, even months due to the virus, the prosecution and defense are both working to streamline their caseloads.

"The beat of justice marches on and you need to be able to effectively address and defend cases," Funke-Bilu said.

Despite the unknowns, Taylor and Funke-Bilu agree these cases cannot be fairly adjudicated while the threat of coronavirus looms.

"I don't know that I'd trust a jury to process the evidence and give my client a fair hearing while they're worried about the 11 people around them," Taylor said.

There is no public access to the courthouses in Paso Robles and Grover Beach.