L.A. County suspends criminal trials for two weeks amid Omicron surge

Los Angeles County will pause all criminal trials for two weeks beginning Wednesday, as coronavirus infections continue to surge across the region due to the infectiousness of the Omicron variant.

Presiding Judge Eric Taylor said trials will be paused until Jan. 19, a delay that will allow court officials to “balance access to justice with local public safety needs.”

“I will continue to consult closely with L.A. County Department of Public Health… officials on local conditions and any changes to public health orders and guidance during this winter surge,” Taylor said in a statement. “For the second consecutive winter, holiday gatherings have fueled widespread community transmission.”

The news came a day after a panel of judges ordered the suspension of all federal trials in Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange counties. There was no timetable given for a return to normal operations in the federal court system.

L.A. County recorded roughly 45,000 new cases during a weekend filled with New Year’s Eve festivities, far above last December’s peak average of 16,000 cases per day. Health officials also warned the weekend tallies might be an undercount due to the holiday.

The delays could prove to be a headache for prosecutors and court officials already trying to clear a massive case backlog caused by the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

L.A. County courts process an average of 100,000 cases per year. Court officials did not immediately offer an update on the systemwide caseload. But in an order issued last year, then-Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile said there were at least 7,000 criminal cases in L.A. County that needed to be heard “to satisfy defendants’ statutory speedy trial rights.”

The delay will freeze at least one high-profile trial. Proceedings against Matthew Fletcher, the defense attorney who once represented Marion “Suge” Knight at his murder trial, had begun in December nearly four years after he was indicted on charges on conspiring to commit bribery and obstruction of justice based on allegations he tampered with witnesses in Knight’s case.

Shortly before the announcement delaying trials, attorneys involved in Fletcher’s case learned that one juror had tested positive for the coronavirus and two others were symptomatic, according to Fletcher’s attorney, Alexandria Kazarian.

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