When Covid-19 struck the Monterey County Jail, it struck the special custody unit first.
In that unit, inmates accused of sex crimes are housed, along with inmates who need to be segregated from the general population for their own safety because they are gang dropouts or because they identify as LGBTQ. Some have been convicted, but many are awaiting trial and unable to make bail.
And one of those inmates, a political consultant and high school coach who’s the defendant in what’s likely to be the highest-profile trial in Monterey County in the coming year, wanted out as the number of Covid cases at the jail swelled this month.
Attorneys for John Fickas, who’s in custody on $1.5 million bail as he awaits trial on charges that he sexually assaulted six people – including two teenage girls he met through his work coaching at North Salinas High and who volunteered to work on campaigns he ran – filed an emergency motion for pretrial release due to the pandemic.
In the motion, which was redacted to remove Fickas’ confidential health information, Chief Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Davenport writes that Fickas suffers from numerous medical conditions that place him at high risk of complications if he contracts Covid-19. According to the Deputy District Attorney Elaine McCleaf’s motion opposing his release, Fickas has tested positive for the virus.
Davenport argues that Fickas’ continued incarceration is unconstitutional.
“In this unique moment, release enhances the safety of other people and the community – and is necessary to protect John Fickas’ own health and safety,” Davenport writes. “John Fickas’ ongoing detention is both dangerous and unconstitutional.”
In her papers, McCleaf states that bail serves two purposes: Securing a defendant’s presence at trial and protecting the public. While in April, at the outset of the pandemic, the state Judicial Council adopted emergency rules surrounding bail that set bail to zero for all misdemeanors and some felonies, those charged with sex offenses were deemed to remain a public threat.
Monterey County Superior Court Judge Pamela Butler denied Fickas’ request for release.
According to the Monterey County Health Department, 728 jail inmates have been tested for Covid, following an outbreak that began earlier this month. In all, 208 inmates have tested positive for the virus, and 245 have been released early due to the pandemic.
One man, 75-year-old Casimiro Carrillo, was to serve a year in jail for committing lewd acts on a minor. Judge Andrew Liu, on a motion from Carrillo’s attorney Roland Soltesz, allowed his release due to the pandemic. Carrillo is living with family outside the county, and Liu ordered him to return to jail in September to complete his sentence.
Defense attorney Steve Rease says as many pre-trial inmates as possible, including some of those charged with violent crimes, should be released. At least some of those defendants could be placed on strict home monitoring.
“No-cash bail is not something defense lawyers invented because of Covid-19. You are putting people’s lives at risk by keeping them incarcerated,” Rease says. “It’s a one-in-four shot if you’re in jail that you’ll be infected.”