Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Judge: Swine flu good cause to suspend some constitutional rightsJudge: Swine flu good cause to suspend some constitutional rights

Judge: Swine flu is reason to suspend constitutional rights

Delays caused by lockdown are costing thousands of dollars, inconveniencing jurors.

A Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that there is legal justification to keep the Central Men’s Jail under medical quarantine – at least for a couple of days – to control a swine flu outbreak.

Judge Thomas Goethals said the “significant medical public health event” in the men’s jail is good cause to temporarily suspend constitutional guarantees to speedy trials, preliminary hearings and arraignments for some criminal case defendants.

He made his ruling over the objections of the county public defender’s office and the alternate defender’s office after a special 90-minute hearing on the status of the health scare in the main men’s jail, which usually houses 800 to 900 inmates.

But Goethals said the exception to speedy court appearances will only be in effect through Thursday, by which time the quarantine of the jail may be lifted. He said he will preside over another hearing Thursday if medical authorities continue the quarantine.

The judge issued his decision after Dr. Jack Palmer, assistant medical director of the Orange County Health Agency, testified that the swine flu outbreak in the jail began three to four weeks ago with a handful of cases, and that there are 25 inmates isolated because of the virus.

But Palmer also testified that the number of new cases appears to be tapering off and that he is hopeful that the lockdown can be lifted in time to renew transporting inmates to courthouse in Santa Ana, Fullerton, Westminster and Newport Beach by Thursday morning.

The disease is generally spread through nasal drippings, sneezes or coughs, Palmer said. The incubation period is 48 to 72 hours, the doctor added, making it difficult to determine precisely who and how many inmates are infected.

Palmer said he authorized the quarantine of the men’s jail Friday because of the increasing number of sick inmates and the desire to attempt to limit the spread of the disease to other jail facilities through inmate contact on transportation buses, holding cells or courtrooms.

Orange County sheriff’s officials confirmed there is already one case of swine flu in the Theo Lacy branch jail, but that inmate was already isolated in a single-man cell and therefore the quarantine has not been extended to that facility.

But county health officials also confirmed that one minor in the county's juvenile hall in Orange was infected with the swine-flu virus, said Tricia Landkuist, spokeswoman for the Orange County Health Care Agency.

The minor has been placed in an isolated unit, along with two other minors who were displaying flu-like symptoms, she said. Those two minors have also been tested for the virus and their results are expected within the week, she said.

As a precautionary measure, two other minors who were being housed with the minor who has been infected have also been placed in a unit with limited contact, she said. The two minors have not displayed any flu symptoms but have also been tested as a precaution.

It costs thousands of dollars a day to run a courtroom, but on Tuesday several normally busy judges and staffs were waiting for cases to be assigned that did not involve inmates from the central men’s jail.

Superior Court Judge John Conley was in the midst of selecting a jury in a child-molestion case when the quarantine went into effect on Monday. His potential jurors were sent home Monday, and were told Tuesday told to call the courtroom Wednesday to find out when their services will be needed.

Superior Court Judge Daniel Barrett McNerney was about to instruct a jury on the law after evidence was presented in a rape case when the trial was shut down Monday by the lockdown.

The defendant in that case reportedly has agreed to waive his personal presence for the instructions – if necessary – on Wednesday, creating the unusual specter of the defendant being linked to the courtroom from the jail by phone while the judge reads instructions to his jury.

According to the state’s Department of Public Health, 12 people have died in Orange County because of swine flu – the most of any county in California.

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