When I walked into the courtroom on March 20, 2019, I took my seat fully expecting to hear the case. As an attorney, true crime writer, and legal analyst of criminal trials, I had been in countless courtrooms. I was not expecting what happened next. At issue was whether San Diego Superior Court Judge David Gill would grant release of sexually violent predator Alvin Ray Quarles under California’s Conditional Release Program. The hearing was to address what evidence would be permitted for the final determination.

Alvin Quarles had terrorized the San Diego community in the 1980’s, breaking into homes and raping over a dozen women at knifepoint. He became known as “The Bolder Than Most” rapist as he often forced the woman’s boyfriend or husband to watch. In 1989, he pled guilty to four rapes, two robberies, and six burglaries and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. But after serving only half of his term, he was set to be released. His victims were horrified and contacted the San Diego County District Attorney’s office, who subsequently filed a petition for Quarles to be classified as a “Sexually Violent Predator” and to be civilly committed to a mental institution under California’s Sexually Violent Predator Act. Sexually Violent Predators – or SVPs – are offenders convicted of sexually violent offenses and diagnosed with a mental disorder that makes them likely to re-offend. In 2014, Quarles was designated a sexually violent predator and sent to Coalinga State Hospital to undergo sex offender treatment.

In 2016, Quarles petitioned for conditional release. SVPs who have been civilly committed may petition a judge to be placed into the Conditional Release Program where they will be released into the community while still continuing sex offender treatment. A residence is selected by the court and supervision overseen by Liberty Healthcare. On October 12, 2018, over fierce objections and heartfelt pleas from victims, Judge Gill ordered Quarles to be released to a home in Jacumba Hot Springs. However, when the rental agreement fell through, the district attorney’s office asked Judge Gill to reconsider and requested an updated psychiatric report. This latest information was to be addressed at the March hearing.

 As I waited in the courtroom with other members of the press, victims, and the citizens’ group, “Your Voice Has Power” soon came in. They were a sea of matching blue shirts, imprinted across the front with the same bold words, “Your Voice Has Power.” Then the Deputy Public Defender walked in. As soon as she saw the media, she asked Judge Gill to be heard and all the attorneys disappeared into Judge Gill’s chambers. Once they emerged, we were all told we had to leave. Surprised, everyone went out into the court hallway to wait, not knowing what was going on. At last, a bailiff came out and told us we could reenter. We all filed back inside the courtroom, but instead of hearing any of the case, we were informed we would not be allowed to hear the proceeding. The courtroom would be closed. One reporter from the San Diego Union Tribune politely asked if the court would state on the record the reason why the media and victims were being excluded. Judge Gill, who had never retaken the bench after the chambers conference, was standing off to the side by his court clerk. He issued a curt, “No.” Again, we went outside and just waited, hoping to speak at some point with one of the attorneys.  Finally, the Deputy District Attorney came out and said they were discussing the supplemental report from Coalinga State Hospital, but she was hopeful everyone would be allowed in shortly. Everyone waited and waited. As it neared the lunch hour, she finally came back out and said she had fought for the hearing to be opened but had lost. Everyone was left to wonder what had transpired behind closed doors. Legislation is now being proposed to preclude this type of situation from occurring.

On January 26, 2021, Senator Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) announced she had reintroduced legislation in partnership with San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan to require court proceedings for Sexually Violent Predators to be kept open to the public. Under Senate Bill 248, the hearings would remain open unless “there exists an overriding interest, based on compelling and extraordinary circumstance, that overcomes the right of the public access to the proceeding.” In addressing specific hearings, Senator Bates wrote, “Senate Bill 248 would require that proceedings for the civil commitment of a sexually violent predator (SVP) and subsequent hearings regarding his/her potential release be in open court and on the record, unless compelling and extraordinary circumstances justify closing the courtroom to the public.” The bill further requires a 10-day notice to all parties in a proceeding before any court closure. Similar legislation had been initiated by Senator Bates and District Attorney Stephan in February of 2020, but the bill was placed on hold as the legislature was dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The request for court closure involving an SVP hearing has often come from the public defender, citing state and federal privacy laws protecting the confidentiality of medical and psychological information. Senate Bill 248 now specifically addresses this issue by mandating, “The discussion of the SVP’s psychological treatment shall not itself constitute compelling and extraordinary circumstances” to close the courtroom.

Senate Bill 248 is awaiting referral to the Senate policy committee as of January 26, 2021.

You may read Senate Bill 248 and Senator Patricia Bates full statement here:

https://bates.cssrc.us/content/sen-bates-and-san-diego-district-attorney-renew-effort-keep-sex-offender-court-hearings-open