Virus outbreak eases at Yolo jail, but challenges remain

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COVID-related safety protocols at the Yolo County Jail have made it difficult for defense attorneys to meet with their in-custody clients, in some cases resulting in trial delays.

When the pandemic curtailed many Yolo Superior Court operations last year, the jail facilitated private Zoom meetings between attorneys and inmates as a substitute for traditional contact visits.

“It was great,” Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson said of the Zoom platform, noting that it accommodated the easy sharing of audio and video evidence, such as footage from officers’ body-worn cameras.

But when the courts opened back up, the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office — which operates the Woodland jail and provides courtroom security — no longer had sufficient staffing to operate the Zoom meetings, sheriff’s Capt. Matt Davis said. 

Instead, lawyers visited their clients in the former family meeting areas (phone calls replaced face-to-face family visits when the pandemic began), in which the parties speak over a phone line while separated by a Plexiglas window, a setup Olson described as less than ideal when it comes to preparing clients for trial. 

The situation got tricker when COVID invaded the jail in early September, sending positive-testing inmates to the infirmary where they had no access to visits or phone calls. Inmates exposed to the virus, meanwhile, went into 14-day quarantines that limited their available visitation times. 

“We’re starting to see trials get continued because we can’t prepare them properly,” Olson said, adding that some inmates are feeling pressured to settle their cases so they can get out of jail sooner. “People shouldn’t be forced into deals because they don’t have access to their attorneys.” 

Sheriff’s spokesman Capt. Matt Davis said his office continues to work with Yolo County health officials and WellPath, the jail’s medical provider, “to ensure we are employing the best practices within our facilities,” including the current policies. 

An online dashboard launched by the Sheriff’s Office shows that 38 current inmates have recovered from Covid-19, and, as of Oct. 15, the facility has been free of any active cases.

“The health, safety, and wellbeing of the incarcerated, our staff and the public is of the utmost importance to the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office,” Davis said. “We actively monitor the state of the pandemic and consistently update our practices to ensure we are providing the safest environment feasible.”

Recent court hearings for jail inmate Humberto Tejeda Jr., whose trial on assault and battery charges is slated to begin Monday, illustrated the challenges that defense attorneys face. 

Last week, Judge Samuel McAdam ordered the jail to facilitate an in-person meeting between Tejeda and his public defender, Martha Sequeira, to review videos related to the case.

But when she arrived for the visit last weekend, jail personnel turned her away, according to Olson. 

That led to a court hearing Wednesday where Sequeira sought an order to show cause — that is, an explanation of the jail’s refusal to obey the visitation order. 

Assistant County Counsel Ron Martinez, representing the jail, told Judge Timothy Fall that “we have no idea what the basis of that order was.” 

“What the Public Defender’s Office is requesting usurps the jail safety protocols, and I don’t believe there was good cause to usurp the safety protocols in the middle of the COVID pandemic,” Martinez said. 

Fall was on the verge of scheduling an order-to-show-cause hearing when Martinez offered Sequeira the alternative solution of a Zoom meeting that would allow for the sharing of video evidence. 

“Perfect,” Sequeira replied. 

Fall, meanwhile, advised both parties that compromises should have been discussed well before the conflict landed in his courtroom.

“Why this wasn’t all worked out before today is beyond me,” he said. But now that the County Counsel’s Office is aware of the problem, he urged its leaders to meet with the Public Defender’s Office to sort matters out “before you start involving a judge.” 

“Because if I issue orders and somebody doesn’t obey them, I hold you in contempt and I put you in jail for up to 10 days,” Fall added. “Work it out, and make sure you don’t get this far next time.” 

With that, Fall confirmed Tejeda’s trial to start Monday morning. 

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