Constitutional Law

Lawsuit against New York state says Bronx misdemeanor delays 'fatally undermined the right to trial'

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Lawyers who represent defendants in criminal cases in New York City have sued the state over lengthy delays in misdemeanor cases in the Bronx.

“Your right to a speedy trial should not depend on your ZIP code, and right now it does,” attorney Ilann Maazel of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady tells CNN Money. His firm represents plaintiffs in the case, which seeks class-action status.

Morrison & Foerster and the Bronx Defenders are also behind the suit, which says the current system “more closely resembles punishment than due process,” the New York Times (reg. req.) reports. It was filed Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan.

At the outset of 2016, there were 2,378 misdemeanor cases that had been pending for more than one year in the Bronx and 538 had been pending more than two years, according to the suit. It says defendants wait, on average, 642 days to have their case tried before a judge and 827 days to have it heard by a jury.

There were some 45,000 misdemeanor arraignments in the Bronx last year.

A chronic lack of staff contributes to case delays: Available courtrooms can’t be put to use because there aren’t enough judges, or, when a judge is available, the lack of a court reporter stops the docket from being heard, the news articles say. Meanwhile, with no specific scheduled time to have a particular case heard, defendants can spend most or all of the day in court, only to have the matter postponed after a brief appearance before the bench until another day.

“We see the impact of intractable delays on the lives of our clients every day,” executive director Robin Steinberg of the Bronx Defenders told the Times. “They suffer financially and psychologically—losing wages, missing school, scrambling to find child care.”

In recent years, lengthy court delays in felony cases have abated after news reports about the problem, the newspaper says. However, misdemeanor cases are still backlogged.

The suit seeks reform rather than damages, the Times says, and Steinberg has a number of ideas about how the impact of delays could be eased for defendants. In addition to assigning more judges and staff to Bronx courtrooms, they include excusing defendants from having to be present at every hearing and setting flexible schedules for court dates, including evening hours.

“Clearly, there are things that can be done immediately to lessen the burden on people,” Steinberg said

A representative for the state’s governor said the suit is under review. A spokesman for Janet DiFiore, who started work in January as the state’s chief judge, declined to comment specifically on the suit.

However, “case backlogs and delays in the state courts, particularly in the Bronx, are an absolute top priority and from her first day, have been directly addressed by the new chief judge,” spokesman Lucian Chalfen said. “She and senior court administrators are actively engaged in working on resolving the problem to the expectations and standards that we expect from the state court system.”

Related coverage: “Stop-and-frisk project reaches ‘appalling’ conclusion: No right to misdemeanor trial in Bronx, NY”

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