In sharply worded decision, Czajka’s authority to decline to prosecute is upheld
HUDSON—Legal friction between the District Attorney’s Office and some town and village justices over the handling of certain court cases still lingers, but two recent court decisions have supported the power of the DA, not the judge, to determine who goes on trial.
The issue of who determines whether someone accused of a violation or crime is prosecuted arose last year. In October, The Columbia Paper reported on the efforts of Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka to take over all aspects of the prosecution of all cases in town and village courts. The move, which the DA said was intended to establish “uniformity and fairness” in how traffic and other offenses were handled, drew objections from a few local judges who disputed the DA’s prosecutorial discretion and plea bargaining authority, especially when it involved a sentence reduction.
Contention over the issues and the DA’s assertion that Kinderhook Town and Village Justice David Dellehunt made disparaging remarks about him in 2004 resulted in Mr. Czajka filing court documents that called for Justice Dellehunt to recuse himself from presiding over 80 cases.
Judge Dellehunt dismissed the DA’s request.
In his decision, Judge Dellehunt said he holds “no animus toward the DA or his staff which would prevent [him] from acting in a fair and impartial manner.” In that case the judge also cited case law to support his position that a district attorney does not have unrestricted power to withdraw a case after it has been filed in local criminal court and then demand that the court dismiss it.
But a December decision in Columbia County Court by Judge Jonathan Nichols backs up the DA’s position on prosecutorial discretion. The DA maintains 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.” Mr. Czajka said that is also the position of DAs statewide.
Judge Nichol’s decision came in connection with a case involving Peter Beckman, who was indicted and charged with second degree criminal sexual act. He was arraigned in County Court April 30, 2012 and pleaded not guilty.
The DA informed the court October 16, 2012 that he declined to prosecute. The defendant did not object and the court dismissed the indictment and released Mr. Beckman.
In his decision Judge Nichols noted that if the court were to mandate that the case go forward it would be compromising its duty by intruding upon the role of the prosecutor, writing that “…if the Court were to substitute its judgment for that of the prosecutor, without any basis other than the Court’s own desire to exercise judicial power and prerogatives… the resultant injustice would be abhorrent.”
By insisting the DA prosecute a case against his judgment and compel the defendant to stand trial for a charge that both parties believe should be dismissed, “the Court would clearly be abusing its discretion by forcing further prosecution and doing so in a manner injurious and prejudicial to both the Defendant and the People.” The judge went on to describe what such a situation would look like if the court failed to dismiss a case that the DA had “unequivocally exercised [his] constitutional discretion to decline to prosecute.”
The DA could be absent or decline to present any witnesses or evidence to support the charge. If the court were to schedule further proceedings, maybe even a trial, “the absurdity of such pursuit would be harshly and inescapably demonstrated by a courtroom devoid of a prosecutor, defense counsel and a defendant… unless the court then dismisses the charge(s), it begs the question of what the court will do next,” wrote Judge Nichols.
DA Czajka noted that Judge Nichols’ decision is consistent with one written by Albany City Court Judge Thomas Keefe with regard to Albany County DA David Soares’ refusal to prosecute Occupy Albany protesters.
But Judge Keefe’s fellow Albany City Court Judge Will Carter and Third Judicial District Judge George Ceresia, Jr., issued contrary opinions on a DA’s decision not prosecute earlier this year.
Though an appeal by the DA of Judge Dellehunt’s decision not to recuse himself would be heard in County Court by either Judge Nichols or Judge Richard Koweek, the DA said he did not believe the decision is an “appealable one.”
He said Judge Dellehunt, “like all judges, has the sole authority to determine whether he can be fair.”
A second recent decision in the DA’s favor came from Acting State Supreme Court Judge Cathryn Doyle, who ordered that the Kinderhook Town Court transmit the electronic recording of the October 2, 2012 court proceeding to an approved service for transcription and to also provide the original electronic recording of the June 4 and October 2 proceedings to the DA within 10 days of her December 26 order.
The DA’s Office asked Justice Dellehunt for the materials both orally and by letter, but the judge ruled from the bench that the People may not be entitled to certain cases. The DA then filed a court action in State Supreme Court to get them.
DA Czajka told The Columbia Paper this week that “anybody can have these recordings not just me—a reporter or a nosy neighbor—as Judge Doyle noted in her decision. It’s part of the public record and should not be hidden from anybody.”
The DA himself handled the prosecution of the cases in Kinderhook Town Court the night of October 2 and said he also wants the record because he does not want to rely on his memory for everything that happened—more than three dozen cases were dealt with that night.
He is also interested in “taking appropriate action” on a least two cases, which he declined to prosecute, but in which the judge ordered the defendants to re-appear at a future date. He said rather than return to court the defendants, who had minor traffic offenses, pleaded guilty and the judge accepted the pleas. The cases should have been dismissed, the DA said.
Justice Dellehunt works for the Third Judicial District and Judge Ceresia, who advises local court judges when conflicts arise, said the DA, noting it is not clear whether Judge Dellehunt’s actions were taken while wearing one hat or the other when it comes to cases the DA has declined to prosecute.
A call to Judge Dellehunt for comment was not returned by press deadline, but when reached in connection with an earlier story on the subject, the judge said he and other judges are precluded from talking to the newspaper about the case.
Another case mentioned by the DA involved an 18-year-old young man charged with a low level misdemeanor, which the DA declined to prosecute. The young man was slated to take an Army entrance exam the following morning, but Copake Justice Brian Herman refused to dismiss the case and scheduled a trial by jury the following week. The judge did not bring in a jury and ultimately dismissed the case, but not before “going through the machinations” to comply with a memorandum from Judge Ceresia, which stated that “if a prosecutor attempts to withdraw prior to trial, the Court does not have the authority to dismiss the matter for failure to prosecute.”
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