courts coronavirus empty courtroom

Judge Bryan Biedscheid conducted a hearing Tuesday in which neither party was physically present, using existing court equipment to amplify the voices on a conference call.

Northern New Mexico’s public safety entities are scrambling to prevent the spread of the novel Coronavirus while maintaining the basic infrastructure of the criminal justice system and emergency services.

Joint efforts focus on keeping people out of courts and jails as much as possible, and protecting first responders.

Jail officials, law enforcement, and attorneys alike are working to fast-track inmates who do not pose a threat through booking and release as quickly as possible.

Española interim police chief Roger Jimenez said the Department is making an effort to issue only citations for some nonviolent, nonfelony offenders they might usually arrest.

A two-week State Police crime suppression operation that saw at least 20 officers stationed in the Española area was cut short when Chief Tim Johnson ordered the officers be sent back to their usual districts due in part to school closures that affect officers’ families.

Rio Arriba County Detention Center Director Larry DeYapp said they are doing all they can to limit inmates’ exposure to the virus.

“Jails are really the worst case for a contagious disease to be at,” he said. “We’re taking all the steps we can, we’re all learning as we go.”

Like the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility, Rio Arriba’s jail has temporarily ended all in-person visits, though family and lawyers alike can still talk to inmates through glass on what DeYapp said are constantly-sterilized phones.

Santa Fe County Spokesperson Carmelina Hart said their jail’s intensified intake screening process caught potential symptoms in a U.S. Marshals Service inmate Saturday and the inmate was immediately moved to a separate quarantine pod prepared in advance.

She said all new inmates will be kept in a screening pod for seven days before moving to the general population, and any symptomatic inmates will be moved to the quarantine pod for 14 days.

“Right now our population has not had contact with the general public, that is why we’re creating this separation,” Hart said.

DeYapp said the infrastructure of Rio Arriba’s jail in Tierra Amarilla does not allow for any such screening pod, but that they have two cells with capacities of two inmates that were specifically designed to house tuberculosis patients.

Empty courts

The state Supreme Court announced late Tuesday that all criminal jury trials not already underway will be suspended until April 30, with exceptions at the discretion of judges in “exceptional circumstances.”

The Court also authorized municipal and county probate courts to close and mandated the screening of courthouse visitors for COVID-19 symptoms.

A previous March 11 rule from Supreme Court Justice Judith Nakamura announced no more than 25 people are allowed in a courtroom at any time and that hearings that can be conducted by telephone or video should be, a sentiment which the Court reinforced on Tuesday.

For now, all court matters other than jury trials­—civil jury trials were postponed indefinitely last week—will continue with precautions in place.

Though not explicitly required, many nonessential hearings are being pushed back, and other hearings are already occurring telephonically with just a judge and court staff in a largely empty room.

At a March 12 plea hearing for Anton Martinez crowded with victims in the case and their families, prosecutors visibly counted heads as people shuffled in and out, with one prosecutor ultimately leaving to bring the count down from 26.

Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur had urged the Supreme Court in a March 15 letter to vacate all jury trials for at least 30 days and asked that all nonessential hearings be vacated or conducted by telephone. He recommended a conference to discuss the release of nonviolent inmates and suspension of arrests for nonviolent offenses.

“Inmates and detainees do not have the option of social distancing,” he wrote. “They live in close proximity, sharing living space, toilets, sinks, showers, and often have limited access to basic hygiene products. The incarcerated population includes disproportionate numbers of at-risk and vulnerable people at greater risk of infection and death.”

EMS resources strained

Española and Rio Arriba fire officials say extra precautions are being taken to protect first responders from infection. Both city and County fire departments are looking to Española Hospital ambulances to transport patients exhibiting symptoms of Coronavirus, though procedures are in place to transport them when necessary.

County Fire Marshal Alfredo Montoya said there is a shortage of respirator masks and some protective gear, though they are not out and gloves seem to be in good supply.

“We could go from having no cases in Rio Arriba County to all of a sudden an influx tomorrow,” he said. “If we see this as a gradual occurrence in the area, it’ll extend the supplies.”

He urged residents to avoid nonessential outings and refrain from stockpiling goods they do not need.

Española Deputy Fire Chief Eric Tafoya said he was not aware of a shortage of supplies, even if they may not have the abundance he would prefer.

He said the Fire Department is following Department of Health guidelines and focusing on sanitation.

“We’re not going to deviate too far from that, because that is what they’re asking for,” he said. “This is a serious thing and we need to take care of our first responders.”

Española Firefighters Union President John Wickersham said masks were limited and that the Department was following a procedure similar to the County’s for potentially symptomatic patient transports. He said surrounding police departments have expressed a need for protective masks or gear.

“There is a shortage throughout this community,” he said.

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