The Public Defender’s Office in downtown Colorado Springs is under an emergency closure and its attorneys are appearing in court by phone after a public defender tested positive for COVID-19, officials say.
“We have had an attorney test positive and have closed our office and told employees to self-quarantine and work remotely based on CDPHE (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) recommendations,” said Rose Roy, who supervises the Colorado Springs office.
Roy said the affected attorney was not in the office, at the jail or at the courthouse while showing symptoms.
The Colorado Springs attorney is at least the second public defender to contract the illness. A Pueblo-based public defender tested positive March 13, according to published reports.
It’s unclear when the Colorado Springs public defender’s office at Pikes Peak Avenue and Tejon Street will reopen.
Fourth Judicial District Administrator Scott Sosebee said court administrators also consulted with health officials after learning of the public defender’s positive test.
“The public defender was last in the courthouse over two weeks ago,” Sosebee said.
“We connected with Public Health and they indicated that no additional measures were necessary unless employees became symptomatic.”
Public defenders provide free legal services for the indigent and frequently interact with jail inmates. The interactions have raised alarms about the potential spread of the novel coronavirus through the justice system. Concerned attorneys raised fears that small holding cells and cramped courtrooms could facilitate transmission of the disease.
Word that a public defender in Colorado Springs has tested positive comes a day after the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office reported its first confirmed case, which sickened an unidentified deputy.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Jacqueline Kirby said the deputy worked in the Law Enforcement Bureau, which includes patrol deputies and detectives.
She did not specify where in the bureau the deputy was assigned.
“The deputy has been at home for almost a week and is getting better,” Kirby said.
Ten inmates at the El Paso County jail were under quarantine for symptoms of an illness, and one is awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test, she said Monday.
The courthouse remains open between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., under emergency rules meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus. While many attorneys are still showing up to court, several said they are staying home and seeking postponements.
Colorado Springs attorney Joshua Tolini is among those who have continued to practice in the El Paso County Combined Courts, citing the “urgent” need to argue for the release of jailed inmates.
“I am still going to the courthouse if it is a plea that will get somebody out of custody,” Tolini said. “We need to do everything we can to lessen the jail population, because if it is in the jail it is going to be a disaster.”
Petitions for the release of jailed inmates because of the risk from the coronavirus have met varying success based on which judge hears the requests and whether prosecutors object, Tolini said. Rulings tend to differ among the courthouse’s 22 felony divisions, he said, although figures weren’t immediately available.
Tolini said some inmates couldn’t be released because of the public safety threat they pose.
The jail’s population is 1,252, down from 1,404 a week earlier, according to sheriff’s records. The decline comes after changes to jail operations amid the threat from COVID-19, Kirby said.
“We have closed down work release and are not accepting writs from other counties. We are experiencing less calls for service as movement within unincorporated El Paso County has decreased,” Kirby said in a statement.
Health officials recommend people keep a “social distance” of at least 6 feet from other people. That’s difficult in a jail setting and is compounded by the poor health of inmates, limits in jail medical care, and the potential for deputies and other jail staff to become sickened.
Additionally, health officials advise frequent hand washing and, in the alternative, the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
“The inmates don’t have hand sanitizer, and there’s no way that you can have all these people 6 feet apart when they’re all crammed in there like that,” Tolini said.
He suggested cutting the jail population by 50 percent to allow for greater distance among inmates, many of whom have health problems related to drug abuse.
“If you’ve been on methamphetamine for two years, your immune system’s pretty weak,” he said.
Among those held in jail are people who haven’t been convicted of a crime but cannot afford to post cash bond while awaiting trials.
The El Paso County Courthouse was closed to the public starting Friday through April 10 except for “matters of immediate concern,” in a move that attorneys applauded after complaining about a lack of unified direction in the local courts.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser on Monday urged state courts to reschedule criminal trials to protect all trial participants from the COVID-19 virus.
Weiser said in a statement prosecutors and defense attorneys must work together to avoid the risk of cases being dismissed over defendants’ constitutional rights to a speedy trial.
Last week, a consortium of criminal justice advocates including the ACLU of Colorado called on the governor and other state officials to take “immediate action” to lower jail and prison populations and reduce probation and parole requirements to prevent the virus from cycling through incarcerated populations.
The Colorado Department of Corrections has stepped up cleaning and disinfecting and barred in-person visits to inmates. But the state prison system previously rejected calls to increase the pace of its release of inmates.
Pueblo defense attorney Rudy Reveles complained that Pueblo court administrators did not initially warn others who worked near the sickened attorney.
“The reason it concerns me is I have a high-risk son at home who is disabled and has as compromised immune system,” Reveles said.