Philmont board fumes over rulings

Police, board criticize judge but have few options to act

PHILMONT—The long-festering animosity of the Philmont Village Board and Police Department towards Village Justice Russ Immarigeon reached a new peak at the December 8 board meeting. Nine members of the village Police Department including Police Chief Vernon Doyle attended the meeting to protest two recent Village Court arraignment hearings presided over by Judge Immarigeon, and Trustee Douglas Cropper presented Mayor Clarence Speed with a petition demanding that Judge Immarigeon “vacate the judicial office immediately.”

The ensuing discussion among the Village Board Trustees included consideration of possible ways the board could circumvent the court. Despite the great displeasure of the board and Police Department, there was general agreement that the judge acted within his rights in these cases.

Both of the arraignment hearings that prompted the petition resulted in decisions to release defendants on their own recognizance—that is, without having to post bail. Mr. Doyle called these decisions “sickening” and “disgusting.” Trustee Brian Johnson said, “We have to do something. It’s just not right.” And Mr. Speed called it “a bad deal, all the way around.”

In the first case, two defendants—Desiree Graziano and William Hamm—were arraigned before Mr. Immarigeon on November 20 after being arrested on drug dealing charges. The charges stemmed from a six-month long investigation during which the Philmont Police Department cooperated with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, the Capital District Drug Enforcement Task Force, and the Columbia County District Attorney’s office. District Attorney Paul Czajka said that his office was “familiar with the history of both defendants,” and that the D.A.’s office had recommended that the defendants be held without bail.

In the second case, a man was brought before the judge on a charge of driving while intoxicated with a child in the car. The district attorney’s office recommended $5,000 bail. Mr. Immarigeon released the man on his own recognizance. Chief Doyle said that the police had contacted Child Protective Services.

D.A. Czajka, a former county judge, reached later by phone, said, “I won’t criticize the judge for his decision. If judges did exactly what lawyers asked, we wouldn’t need judges.”

The two recent incidents seemed to dredge up animosity towards Judge Immarigeon that has been brewing among the members of the board and the police department since the judge’s unopposed election for a four-year term last March.

In August, the board adopted Local Law #2, which states that “a Village justice shall be a Village resident.” The law seemed to be directed at Mr. Immarigeon, who is not a resident of Philmont. In September, members of the board and Village Attorney Rob Fitzsimmons bristled at Mr. Immarigeon’s overturning the decision of a previous judge in yet another case. During that August meeting, Mr. Johnson asked if the board could “file a complaint about our judge to anybody.”

At the time, Mr. Fitzsimmons said that the judge had the right to vacate the previous conviction, adding, “Do I agree with it? Absolutely not.”

Before Mr. Cropper presented the petition at Monday’s meeting, Chief Doyle spoke to the board at length. He called the judge’s actions “a slap in the face to all the officers involved” and said that the judge’s decisions were an implicit message to other criminals that “they can operate their business here,” a sentiment echoed in the petition, which stated that Mr. Immarigeon was “sending a signal to the criminal aspect of the county to do their business in our village.”

When Mr. Cropper presented the petition to Mr. Speed, the mayor said that he would personally hand the petitions to Judge Immarigeon.

Chief Doyle went on to cite several other actions by the judge that had displeased him, including dismissing some tickets issued last winter for failure to keep sidewalks clear of snow and dismissing a ticket issued to a woman for having illegally tinted windows on her car. The chief referred to the anti-window tinting laws as an issue of “officer safety.”

Asked by the mayor whether the board can “dismiss the court completely,” Mr. Fitzsimmons said the board may not because the Village Justice is a separately elected official. Philmont could seek voter approval to fold its court into the Claverack Town Court, but not until the current judicial term expires in 2018.

Complaints about judges are handled by the state Office of Court Administration (OCA), but that agency only hears complaints about judicial misconduct—actual criminality by a judge. Both Mr. Czajka, the district attorney, and Town Attorney Fitzsimmons, said Judge Immarigeon’s decisions were within the scope of his judicial discretion.

With the option of an official complaint seeming unlikely to yield results, discussion ensued of ways in which the board could circumvent the court.

During a discussion of other options Mr. Fitzsimmons advised the board that it may not offer to pay the judge not to show up nor does the board have the power to reduce the judge’s salary to $1, although he said the board might be able to lower the amount of money provided to the judge for incidental office expenses.

When the police arrest a suspect, they call the village justice and ask him to meet them at the Village Court for an arraignment. If the judge does not pick up the phone, police may bring the suspect to a neighboring court. Trustee Barbara Sagal asked Chief Doyle how many times the police are required to let the phone ring before they determine the judge did not pick up. Mr. Doyle’s answer to the question was vague.

There was also a discussion of what types of cases must be brought before the judge, with general agreement that all cases involving village tickets must be heard before in Village Court. But Chief Doyle said that police determine where to take felony suspects for arraignment on a case-by-case basis. All felonies are tried in County Court in Hudson, regardless of where arraignment occurs.

Reached by phone after the meeting, Judge Immarigeon did not feel comfortable commenting on the petition or any of the cases that prompted it.

David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the state court system, said by phone this week that “if every time a judge makes an unpopular decision there’s a call for resignation, it undermines the public’s confidence in the judiciary.” Mr. Bookstaver—who was responding to a general question and was is not familiar with the details of the Philmont cases—went on to say that “there may be a sense of public safety” in the police and board’s complaints. “That’s misguided. That’s not what bail [is for]. Bail in New York State can only be used to insure a defendant’s return to court. It may not be used for protective detention or punishment.”

Mr. Bookstaver said that the wisdom of the judge’s decisions to release suspects on their own recognizance will only be tested on the date appointed for their appearance in court. “One side will be proven right, and the other side will be proven wrong. In the meantime, the criticism is speculative.”

In other business:

  • There is no parking on Main Street for winter months
  • Water termination is scheduled for December 10 at noon
  • The Santa Claus Club Parade will take place Saturday, December 13
  • There will be a holiday party at the community center December 16 at 4:15 p.m.
  • A tour of the village for the holiday lighting contest begins at 6:30 p.m. December 18.

 

 

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