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June 3, 2020

Law enforcement, courts grapple with COVID-19 closures

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—The shelter-in-place order issued Monday by Santa Cruz County officials applies to most residents, requiring them to stay home except to engage in – or work for –  services deemed essential.

Violation of the order is a misdemeanor that can bring fines or jail time.

But county officials hope it doesn’t come to that. Instead, residents should familiarize themselves with the new rules and follow them to the best of their abilities, said Watsonville Deputy City Manager Tamara Vides.

“The most important thing that we’re trying to get out is that people read the order that was issued by the county,” Vides said.

Watsonville Police Chief David Honda posted a Facebook message Wednesday with a similar tone.

“We are asking residents and business owners to follow this order so that we can keep officers from having to issue citations and to avoid any potential criminal charges or civil/administrative sanctions by the County,” he wrote. “And trust us, it’s the last thing we want to do during a public health emergency.”

Watsonville City officials are reaching out to Spanish speakers via Facebook and on the city website to provide information about the coronavirus response.

The order is like thousands across the country, implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19, also known as coronavirus. 

Staying at home is one item on a list of “social distancing” measures.

“At this time what we’re really trying to compel people to stay at home and only go out if it’s absolutely essential,” Vides said. 

Because grocery stores are on the list of services deemed essential, food hoarding and panic shopping are not necessary, Vides said.

Still, unless residents need to be out, they should stay at home, she said.

“Staying home is the best thing they can do for themselves and others,” Vides said. “What we need to realize is this is now life as usual, this is a different time, and we’re trying to contain the threat of a virus.”

Law enforcement

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart told reporters Tuesday that, while law enforcement officials are tasked with enforcing the order, their first priority will not be to cite and arrest.

“Our deputy sheriffs are going to be very careful on how we enforce that order,” he said. 

Residents can still take walks, go grocery shopping and engage in other day-to-day activities, he said. 

“We’re not in a state of martial law,” he said. “People can still do some things, and they should be restricted to their houses when they can.” 

Hart said he was with the Sheriff’s Office during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake and the 9/11 attacks, both of which showed the county’s mettle to weather crises. 

“What I’ve found is that our community always steps up and does the right thing,” he said. “Our community always does its best when things get bad.”

Law enforcement will be looking for large gatherings, both indoor and outdoor, which are prohibited under the order. 

While fines of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail are possible, those measures are not the likely outcome, Hart said. 

“Those people will be worked with, and we will try to convince them to do the right thing and comply with the health officer’s order,” he said. “Potentially we can issue a citation, and potentially we could take them to jail. But that’s not the point of this.”

The court system

Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Paul Burdick said Tuesday that the system has delayed all jury trials – including criminal, civil and probate – through April 17. 

Jurors who are summoned during that time do not have to report for jury duty, he said. 

Most other departments related to the courts are closed, except for those deemed essential.

This includes juveniles in detention, minors who need protection from abusive or drug-addicted parents, elders at risk of abuse and people who need emergency protective orders.

One courtroom will also be running to handle the caseload of people who are arrested and have a legal right to face a judge within 48 hours.

“We’re required to balance the need to ensure public safety with our constitutional obligations to provide access to the courts,” Burdick said. 

The court has also suspended collections on court fines through May 1, and extended community service hours.  

Starting March 24 the Watsonville courthouse will close its doors at noon.

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