HUDSON—A move by the Columbia County District Attorney to take over all aspects of the prosecution of all cases in town and village courts has raised objections from behind some benches.
Conflicts over the handling of cases before the Kinderhook Town and Village courts of Justice David A. Dellehunt have led to a legal action by the district attorney, who has asked the judge to voluntarily recuse himself from hearing “any and all Criminal and Vehicle and Traffic matters in Columbia County.”
At issue is the extent to which the district attorney can exert his authority to plea bargain or prosecute a case at all and whether the local judges are bound to follow the bargains the DA and his assistants make or the DA’s decision not to prosecute some cases.
Judge Dellehunt has refused to step aside as the DA has requested, saying to do so would effectively close down his court. And he’s not the only local judge unhappy with the DA’s new policies. Other complaints about the DA’s procedures have come from Taghkanic Justice Jeffrey Tallackson and Chatham Town Justices Jason Shaw and James Borgia-Forster.
Reached by phone Judge Dellehunt said he and other judges are precluded from talking to the newspaper about the case.
The DA, on the other hand, provided a detailed explanation of his position.
Until a couple of years ago, State Police and police officers from other departments not only ticketed motorists for traffic offenses, they also handled plea bargaining for tickets they issued. Former District Attorney Beth Cozzolino authorized that practice and so did current District Attorney Paul Czajka during his prior term as DA (1988-1994). But a few years back during a budget crisis, the State Police stopped the practice of troopers’ pre-trail negotiations with motorists.
But other police agencies, like the Sheriff’s Office and Hudson Police, as well as town and village justices, continued to have different systems for dealing with the prosecution of offenses like speeding tickets, which are violations, not crimes. Motorists faced procedures that were handled “vastly differently depending on where they were stopped and the color of the ticketing officer’s uniform,” the DA said.
In the hopes of establishing “uniformity and fairness, I decided to take over the prosecution of all traffic offenses as soon as I took office,” said Mr. Czajka. To that end he sent out a January 3 letter to all judges, town supervisors, mayors, police chiefs, the sheriff and the first sergeant at State Police Troop K announcing his intention that “no one other than Assistant District Attorneys are authorized to prosecute any cases,” including vehicle and traffic files. He also included a list of all the ADAs he appointed, who would be doing the prosecuting: David M. Costanzo, James A. Carlucci, Dominic J. Cornelius, Robert M. Gibson, Carl G. Whitbeck, Jr. and H. Neal Conolly.
The change “has not been even a minimal problem with the majority of judges and there are three dozen of them in the county,” said the DA. But four judges in three local courts took the DA to task by questioning his plea bargaining authority, including his authority to make plea bargains that involve a reduction on a certain sentence.
In court documents calling for Kinderhook’s Judge David Dellehunt to recuse himself from presiding over 80 cases, Mr. Czajka alleges that Judge Dellehunt stated in public April 21, 2004 that the DA, then a judge, had a “‘general lack of civility towards lawyers’ as well as ‘everyone else who enter[ed] [my] courtroom.’” The statement, attributed to Mr. Dellehunt appeared in the Hudson newspaper, the Register-Star, in a story about the Democratic endorsement of Pamela Joern for county judge.
In his September 26 decision rebuffing the DA’s request for recusal, the judge said he told then Judge Czajka back in 2004 that the newspaper comments attributed to him were “inaccurate” and that he “holds no animus toward the DA or his staff which would prevent [him] from acting in a fair and impartial manner…”
The DA’s filing contends that he has “unfettered discretion to determine whether or not to prosecute an individual and the Courts may not and should not interfere with that discretion.” And he says that Judge Dellehunt has interfered with that discretion in his own court and has tried to convince other judges that the DA has no authority to decline to prosecute matters or to place conditions on plea bargains.
Though the DA “unequivocally declined to prosecute vehicle and traffic offenses” on at least two occasions, Judge Dellehunt scheduled trials anyway.
Mr. Czajka says that only after he repeated his intention not to prosecute or present any proof in the cases did Judge Dellehunt tell the defendants that he had no choice but to dismiss their tickets. But the DA says by then the defendants had been forced to reappear in court and wait for up to an hour.
“The Court’s animus towards me resulted in actual prejudice” to the defendants and is “a bias in favor of conviction,” the DA asserted.
In his ruling dismissing the DA’s request, Judge Dellehunt cites case law that he contends does not give a DA unfettered power to withdraw a case after it has been filed in local criminal court and then demand that the court dismiss it. He notes that “the DA’s contention merely highlights a difference of opinion regarding the Court’s interpretation of legal precedent” and is not a basis for recusal.
In denying the DA’s motion for recusal, Judge Dellehunt said his recusal “would, in effect shut this court down. In the absence of ill will, a Judge has an affirmative duty not to recuse himself, but to preside over the case.”
In letters provided by the DA’s office, Justice Tallackson of Taghkanic takes the DA to task for including a specific fine to be paid at a specific time in a proposed plea arrangement. Though the DA’s Office can make any recommendation, “sentencing is the Court’s prerogative, not the People’s—the Court is not a rubber stamp” wrote Judge Tallackson, who went on to say he was rejecting the proposed plea arrangement because he considered the mention of the fine and when it was to be paid, “an encroachment on the Court’s proper role in the process.”
Chatham Town Justices Shaw and Borgia-Forster both signed letters to the DA expressing concerns about the “plea sheet,” the document that spells out the terms of the plea arrangement and has places for all involved parties to sign if they agree. The Chatham judges complain that the DA’s notice forms are unclear and they state that “the unilateral creation of plea sheets that require the judges’ signatures” is not within the spirit of cooperation on court administrative processes. The judges said they would not “be entering information on the sheet or signing it” until their input is incorporated in the document.
In both cases, the DA responded that he “never suggested that a court must accept a proposed plea bargain, sign a document or even accept the use of any form.”
Asked if he will appeal Judge Dellehunt’s decision not to recuse himself, DA Czajka said he still has one motion pending on the matter and has not yet decided.
Mr. Dellehunt won election as Kinderhook Town Justice last November against ADA James Carlucci. In addition to his justice positions in the town and village, Mr. Dellehunt also works for the New York State Unified Court System as special counsel to 128 town and village courts in the Third Judicial District, including all courts in Columbia County. As such, he often addresses conflicts that arise in local courts on behalf of Administrative Judge George B. Ceresia, Jr.
Asked if the matter in his own courts would be appealed to the office for which he works, Judge Dellehunt said an appeal of his decision would be heard in County Court and his office would not have anything to do with it.
To contact Diane Valden email .