SF Public Defender sues over backlog of criminal court cases

San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju is filing a lawsuit against San Francisco Superior Court, seeking an injunction to require the court to prioritize criminal cases and grant those accused of a crime their right to a speedy trial.   

According to lawsuit announced on Tuesday, filed last week by Raju and four others, over 400 people currently have pending criminal cases within San Francisco Superior Court that have gone past the state law of 60 days. 

Of those, about 178 are incarcerated, with a large portion of those having been in jail for a year or more.   

The suit alleges that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the court has tried just 34 criminal cases to verdict -- significantly less than other counties -- and continues to cite the pandemic as the cause for criminal trials being delayed.   

Furthermore, the suit accuses the court of continuing to hold non-urgent civil jury trials at the Civic Center Courthouse as criminal jury trials at the Hall of Justice continue to be delayed.   

"Our laws guarantee Californians a right to a speedy trial within 60 days," Raju said during a rally outside the Hall of Justice, located at 850 Bryant Street.   

"It is a humanitarian crisis that we have over 100 people waiting in jail for months, some over a year, often in their cells for over 23 hours a day. This kind of isolation and deprivation can cause irreversible long-term psychological damage to individuals and their families. It's also a humanitarian crisis to have hundreds more outside the jail but still subject to the court's orders while presumptively innocent -- people whose speedy trial rights are simply being trampled," he said.   

Raju added, "At the current rate, the crisis is not going to get better. It's only going to get worse."   

"We're in the most progressive city in the U.S. and we have a version of Guantanamo Bay right around the corner," said Deputy Public Defender Landon Davis. "You have people, our own brothers and sisters, who are presumed innocent, who are being held captive like dogs. They're being held captive with no trial in sight, in violation of their constitutional right to have a trial.  

 "I hear all the cries and pain from my clients and what they tell me is this is torture. They are being held in a dirty, smelly cell 23 hours of the day, with no ventilation, no place to move," Davis said. "This is modern day torture."   

The lawsuit calls for the courts to give precedence to criminal cases over civil matters and to make a plan to eliminate the backlog of criminal cases pending trial. 

The suit also seeks to require the court to open court rooms at the Civic Center Courthouse for criminal trials.   

Superior Court Presiding Judge Samuel Feng is named as a defendant in the suit, as well Chief Executive Officer T. Michael Yuen.   

In a statement, court officials said, "The San Francisco Superior Court continues to give criminal trials the highest priority. We will respond to the complaint in court."