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Lack of Judges Leads to Calif. Accused Walking Free

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on October 27, 2010 6:54 AM

California's Supreme Court has upheld the dismissal of 18 criminal cases, and the reason might surprise you. The cases were not dismissed for lack of evidence, but for lack of judges.

There were simply not enough judges in enough courtrooms to hear the cases in Riverside County, so the Southern California defendants, two charged with felonies and the rest with misdemeanors, each received a get out of court free card.

Riverside County prosecutors challenged the dismissals, saying that every effort had not been made to hear the cases, reports The Los Angeles Times. According to prosecutors, every family law, juvenile and probate judge should have been roped in to hear the criminal cases. Not so, wrote Chief Justice Ronald George, writing the opinion for the state's highest court.

The court found the lack of judges was a chronic problem, exacerbated by the state budget shortfalls and the population growth in Riverside County. The lack of judges has been a long-time concern of Judge George, writes The Times. The Chief Justice has long lobbied Sacramento to hire more jurists, perhaps with just this kind of crisis in mind.

The criminal defendants who were not tried had refused to waive their right to a speedy trial. It is one of the tenants of the criminal justice system that those accused of a crime have the constitutional right to a speedy hearing, in part to ensure access to evidence and witnesses. Since civil complainants do not have that same right, the Riverside prosecutor's office argued the resources should have been shifted from the civil side to the criminal, but the court did not agree.

The court said the county already was giving criminal cases priority over civil disputes, and the county courts were not required to halt proceedings in civil cases just to make room for criminal matters.

There may be one other reason behind the dismissals. County Deputy Public Defender William A. Meronek said the DA could be in part to blame for the mess, The Times reports. Meronek claims that the prosecutor's office charging policy is clogging the courts.

"They tend to pursue everything, and they are reluctant to plea bargain or negotiate any settlement," Meronek toldThe Times. But Chief Assistant District Attorney Bill Mitchell rebutted the statement. Mitchell says the office's charging policy was not to blame, since only about 3% of criminal filings make it to trial.

The bottom line appears to be not enough judge and not enough money to pay them. According to The Times, in a footnote in Monday's ruling, Chief Justice George noted that the Legislature has authorized 14 new judges for Riverside County, but funded only half of them.

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