New York courts face new challenges amid COVID-19

On June 29, courts around the state outside of New York City were permitted to resume convening grand juries for the first time in four months.

Since mid-March, New York’s court system has been at a near standstill amid precautions related to the coronavirus pandemic. No trials, pleas, new filings or grand juries. Only the most essential proceedings went forward, by video conference.

According to State Supreme Court Justice Craig Doran — administrative judge for the 7th Judicial District, which covers Ontario, Monroe and surrounding counties — it's been an adjustment.

"The job's been quite different since the COVID era," he said in a phone interview Wednesday.

According to information released from Doran's office, the types of proceedings which can now be heard in person include child support and permanency proceedings, preliminary hearings for criminal cases for defendants held in jail or on felony complaints, small claims filed before April 1, arraignments of defendants issued desk appearance tickets and more.

In a transcript from Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, issued July 13 from a public conference call, DiFiore singled out praise for Doran: "And, in particular, I want to thank Judge Craig Doran for the leading role he has played in our statewide planning efforts to create a reliable roadmap for the safe and steady restoration of in-person operations," the transcript read.

Doran confirmed his role in the planning process, stating how, as Governor Andrew Cuomo shut down all non-essential businesses in early March, Doran worked with staff to consolidate court operations, closing city courts and moving any proceedings into the county court.

"We also converted to 100% virtual operations," he said, which were still in effect for most proceedings, using Skype for Business to handle court matters. Doran said it wasn't uncommon for a defendant to be Skyping from the Ontario County Jail while he Skyped from his chambers and the two attorneys did the same from both of their offices. The whole proceding would then be broadcast on a television in the actual courtroom for viewers to watch.

"In all instances in my courtroom, the defendant has consented to virtual proceedings," he said, in reference to criminal cases he's overseen. While there were at least two proceedings where the defendant did not consent, they were still able to hold an in-person session.

"My own opinion is where we are able, legally and procedurally, having a virtual hearing, we should do that," Doran said.

"We’re trying to balance safety."

Public defenders 'still working'

Yet while the courts have transitioned to virtual operations, a backlog remains for many criminal cases, according to Ontario County Public Defender Leanne Lapp.

"There's going to be a backlog just because courts couldn't hold session," Lapp said. "The safety of everyone is a top priority. I think that each court has been examining their own particular situation and they’re each trying to come up with an approach that will restore us to a full court practice for everyone that has to be there."

Much like the courts themselves, Lapp's office has been working throughout the pandemic, even when the state shut down all but nonessential businesses.

"We were still working during the shutdown," Lapp said, noting that attorneys working for the public defender were still working to resolve cases during the initial shutdown, to avoid any case dragging on for too long. "We’ve really worked hard to minimize that on our clients."

While clients of the defender's office couldn’t make any in-person court appearances, attorneys were still able to maintain communications with them, in addition to reviewing discovery materials, conducting legal research, writing different legal briefs and negotiating with the district attorney's office on how to resolve cases.

Yet when it comes to what the long-term effects of communicating virtually might be, Lapp was more circumspect.

"I think that remains to be seen," she said. "We certainly have to adjust to how everyone meets now, with social distancing and wearing masks. I can tell you from personal experience meeting people with a mask on is definitely different."

But that doesn't change the central goal of being a public defender, she added.

"We’re still here to advocate zealously for our clients in whatever form that may take," she said.

'A significant milestone'

Late last week as the Hudson Valley region entered Phase Four of the state’s reopening process and courts in the Ninth and Third judicial districts — which include Orange, Dutchess, Rockland, Westchester, Ulster, Putnam, and Sullivan counties, officially resumed limited in-person appearances.

Monday’s resumption of grand juries, DiFiore said, is "a significant milestone not only for our court system but for the entire criminal justice system."

But, the court system now faces a backlog created by the lost time. And the long wait for grand juries specifically slowed the process not only for members of the court, but also law enforcement.

Without grand juries, Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler said last week, everything was “kind of suspended. You can’t really take any pleas. You can’t really do anything substantive with a case.”

While a grand jury does not involve a trial, the group of 16 to 23 people listens to evidence presented by a prosecutor and decides if there's enough to support a criminal charge. The decision is based on a majority and not unanimous like a trial jury.

For places like the City of Poughkeepsie, resuming grand juries comes at an opportune time. The city in late June experienced a spike in gun violence, including the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old student. Hoovler likewise said he is seeing crime pick up again after a relative lull during the economic shutdown.

Poughkeepsie Capt. Richard Wilson noted during the grand jury process investigators can continue to collect and submit evidence and the jury can sort out the facts.

"So typically, in the process, we will bring our information, our case, and what we have to a grand jury. We may end up bringing additional information at some point,” he said. "But with (the grand jury) not meeting regularly and with the process not moving, that's slowing down and changing the course of some of our options at this point.”

The Unified Court System, which oversees the state's county-level, city and appellate courts, ordered all non-essential matters postponed until further notice on March 15. Five days later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order suspending the timeframe required for speedy trial due to the pandemic.

Under Phase 4, limitations are slowly ending. Courts are beginning to allow in-court pleas and sentencing for defendants who are at liberty, preliminary hearings for defendants in custody and arraignments for defendants who were issued appearance tickets during the shutdown. Family Courts will resume in-person child support and permanency hearings, Supreme Courts can allow some bench trials and appearances.

Impact on defendants, victims

Gary Abramson, chief attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, said there was little progress that could be made on a criminal case during the lockdown.

“What’s remarkable — the backlog is not affecting people as adversely as one might assume. Because of the new bail law, defendants are out. When you’re out, you’re not in a hurry to resolve the case at all,” Abramson said.

However, “the impact for someone who’s incarcerated is dramatic,” said Tim Havas, executive director of the Sullivan Legal Aid Panel. “In the absence of speedy grand jury presentations, people have been compromised by the delay,” he said.

Trying to have confidential conversations with a jailed client via video conferencing is also a challenge, Havas said. “It’s worked, but on a less-than-idealistic level,” he said.

For those who are out, it’s harder to find them and get them admitted to a drug treatment program because of COVID-19 precautions and limitations, Havas said.

Havas said some local courts are starting to reopen, and judges have started to do some very limited pleas, mainly in felony cases where the defendant signed a waiver to allow a plea via Skype, and there's an agreed-upon sentence that doesn’t involve prison time.

Hoovler said his staff has stayed in touch with crime victims to explain what’s happening. To minimize risk for everyone, they’re avoiding bringing victims and witnesses to the office unless it’s absolutely necessary.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Blaise Gomez, who is the complainant in a domestic violence case that was supposed to start trial in April. The News 12 reporter has been vocal in support of domestic violence victims since charges were filed against her ex last year. She said she expected the case to be over and done with, and she feels like she has to keep reliving the experience as long as the case is pending.

“The COVID crisis has basically created a catastrophe for victims,” she said. “It’s just creating astronomical consequences for people, for victims who are looking for justice, because there is none.”

Additional reporting by Heather Yakin, Times-Herald-Record and Poughkeepsie Journal reporter Ryan Santistevan.