Mitchell A. Hardin’s attorney wanted nothing to do with him.
Set to enter a plea on a residential burglary charge in Spokane County Superior Court last week, the 21-year-old inmate was told he had to wait another day.
His lawyer, seeing a surgical mask Hardin was wearing, feared contracting the H1N1 virus and wouldn’t go near the jail inmate in court. Hardin said at the time he didn’t feel ill, but he had in the past few days and he shared a cell with sick inmates.
None appears to have H1N1, or swine flu, but Spokane County Jail officials aren’t taking any chances.
Under a new policy implemented in the past two weeks, inmates who show symptoms of flu or a cold – and anyone near them – must wear protective masks when they leave their cells. That includes court appearances.
But the reaction from Todd Porter, Hardin’s public defender, and subsequent delay of a scheduled court proceeding prompted Spokane County Superior Judge Maryann Moreno to call a meeting this Thursday with jail staff and attorneys to sort out what she predicted “is going to snowball into an issue.”
“Are we going to do this with all people who have the sniffles?” Moreno said in court last week, referring to Hardin. “This seems a little paranoid to me, with all due respect.”
Jail officials say they’re taking the extra precautions to prevent a widespread outbreak. About 20 inmates are affected, including one man whose transfer to Oregon was postponed last week because officials didn’t want to run the risk of spreading illness.
“Sometimes we’re taking these precautions when there’s no indication they have the flu,” said jail Lt. Dan Veloski. “We just wanted to nip it in the bud as quick as we could.”
Last week’s sentencing delay was caused by a misconception about H1N1 and the new mask policy, Veloski said.
“People still don’t understand what swine flu is,” he said. “A lot of people believe it’s airborne, and that’s not true. It’s the virus inside their cough or their sneeze.”
This week’s meeting should help clear that up. “We want to protect the people in that court,” Veloski said. “Things could spread very quickly in this type of environment.”
In the meeting, Veloski said, jail staff will explain to attorneys “what our protocol is and what certain individuals may be wearing masks when they come to court.”
The surgical masks are meant to catch contagious droplets in coughs or sneezes, which experts say is the most common way to contract H1N1.
“Are they 100 percent effective? No,” Veloski said. “But they’re better than nothing.”
No one else in the courtroom for Mitchell’s sentencing objected to proceeding, but Porter’s reluctance to sit next to his mask-wearing client was understandable, said David Brody, an associate professor at Washington State University and director of the Spokane campus’s criminal justice program.
“I can understand everyone’s perspective,” Brody said. “My concern would be whether it impacts a defendant’s right to go to court. Will it get to the point where they’ll want to do sentencing over video?”
Hardin shrugged when Moreno asked him what he thought of the mask in court last week. Interviewed later, he called the policy “dumb.” He said he chuckled when Moreno told him he looked “pretty silly.” “I was sitting there smiling, but no one could see,” Hardin said.