‘It’s the best we can do’: Courthouse manages influx of District Court cases amid pandemic

  • People scheduled to appear in district court Thursday wait to be checked in at Keahuolu Courthouse. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Court Clerk Lisa Ciriako, left, checks in people scheduled to appear in district court Thursday at Keahuolu Courthouse. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

A line of people stretched from the entrance of Keahuolu Courthouse to the parking lot as 129 people waited to be checked in for Thursday morning’s Kona District Court calendar.

Beginning at 8 a.m., Court Clerk Lisa Ciriako checked names off the list of those scheduled to appear before Judge Margaret Masunaga and assigned an area within the courthouse where the defendants would wait and be able to social distance until their case was called.

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The vast majority of cases were misdemeanor traffic and emergency order violations.

An extra courtroom, jury room, and hallways each held groups of 15 people, as did the district courtroom. When all of those spaces were filled, defendants were told to return at 10 a.m.

When the 15 cases were heard, another group was ushered in.

“It’s the best we can do,” Ciriako said.

Third Circuit Court Chief Judge Robert D.S. Kim said the Judiciary is doing everything it can to keep the courthouse COVID-19-free.

“They’re wearing their masks, they’re 6-foot separated, we have people who are monitoring the situation,” said Kim. “We just have a lot of cases.”

Kim said unless they do 24-hour court, which is not an option, there’s no way to avoid the large numbers at District Court.

“We separate them in groups and once they leave, we wipe everything down. That’s as good as we can get. The alternative is there is no alternative,” he said.

The court is looking into ways to move toward more remote hearings, but there are challenges that need to be addressed.

“We are doing everything humanly possible, but we can’t stop the volume,” he said. “If anybody has any suggestions, we are more than happy to try to implement them.”

Some remote capabilities are being implemented, including appearances via Zoom. On Thursday, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Sara Vargas appeared via remote video.

Kim said the prosecutor doesn’t have clients to meet with, making Zoom an option for them to appear in District Court.

“In a sense when you think about it, that’s just one less person in the courtroom,” Kim said.

Kona Public Defenders Office Supervisor Ann Datta, one of many litigators concerned about the number of people in the facility at one time, said if the court is going to allow the prosecutor to appear by Zoom because of COVID-19 concerns, it should allow all people with court dates to appear by Zoom.

“To have 129 people in the courthouse for an extended period of time unnecessarily increases the risk of exposure,” said Datta. “The numbers coming to district court increased exponentially due to police charging misdemeanor crimes.”

Hawaii County Police Chief Paul Ferreira said the influx of cases was due to multiple factors.

“Prior to COVID, the courts provided the police with appearance dates with three month notice, but since COVID, it has switched to court dates with two-month notice, then one-month notice, which resulted in yesterday’s court date being used for several months,” Ferreira said. “There was no increase in the number of citations by Kona officers, but they normally have a high number.”

Ferreira said another reason for the increase of cases was due to one state Department of Land and Natural Resources officer who issued citations from April onward, all with the same court date of Aug. 27, as opposed to following the court schedule.

“Our officers like other first responders are very cognizant of the exposure risks involving the Coronavirus as they have had to continue performing their duties from the start of the pandemic and do not have the luxury of choosing whether or not they come into contact with individuals,” Ferreira said.

The district court calendar for Thursday indicated 31 individuals charged by DLNR for violating the emergency order.

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District Court criminal and traffic defendants called into court for misdemeanor and petty misdemeanors and traffic violations since in person proceedings resumed in June continues to grow, according to court data. June saw 481 cases, followed by 706 in July and 970 so far in August.

The highest number in any one calendar session was 143 on Aug. 13.

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