County to hire night court defenders

HUDSON–Columbia County is awaiting authorization to pay for two part-time assistant public defenders for nighttime arraignments and for a paralegal to support them.

The money to pay them would come from New York State Indigent Legal Services funds and will allow the county “to find and hire” qualified people with the goal of assuring that everybody arrested at night in the county will have a lawyer the first time they face a judge. The goal, said county Public Defender Robert Linville, is to “ensure county residents have the maximum chance not to have their lives interrupted while they are still innocent.”

Each new assistant public defender would earn $48,905 a year.

When police arrest people, they typically question them and then bring the arrested person–often in handcuffs–before a judge, Mr. Linville explained in interviews November 22 and December 4. This first appearance of a defendant before a judge on a specified charge is called the arraignment. At that point, Mr. Linville said, “the mantel of court authority comes down on the defendant,” tying the defendant’s fate to court decisions and authorizing the arraigning judge to decide the next step: jail, bail, release with a ticket to appear at a specific court at a specific day and time, or “just releasing someone on his own word,” Mr. Linville said.

Some of these options are a form of punishment. Even court appointments can disrupt a person’s life if it requires missing work–often with no way to notify the boss beforehand–and consequently losing pay or a job. Sometimes the judge’s orders take away from the defendant something “you can never get back,” said Mr. Linville. Yet at this stage in the legal process the defendant, having not being proven guilty, is legally innocent.

“At that point, I don’t want anyone to go to jail,” said Mr. Linville. “Just give him an appearance ticket and send him home. In my experience, almost nobody blows a scheduled court appearance.”

When no lawyer for the defense is present at the arraignment, Mr. Linville believes a judge is more likely to think the defendant must have done something and the judge has a “high chance” of sending the accused directly to jail.

A defense lawyer “reminds the judge of the hardships” that jail or missed work place on a defendant and the defendant’s family. Having defense counsel at arraignment increases the chance that, instead of jail or bail, the defendant will get an “appearance ticket and told to come back to the arraigning court,” at a specified time more suitable to the defendant, he said.

But the county has not had defense lawyers who appear in court at night though some judges will hear late night cases. So people arrested at night are taken to one of the judges available at night, and the person arrested faces the judge without a defense lawyer, making it more likely that the next step for the defendant will be harsh, according to the public defender.

Although many cases are eventually handled in the town where the alleged offense took place, an arraignment can take place in any open court. Every town in the county has a court, but the only courts open at night are in Chatham, Claverack, Hudson, Kinderhook and Livingston. These are called the county’s “hub courts.”

Each of the new assistant public defenders will alternate working at night for seven days with seven days working during the day. The paralegal will work full time during the day.

The county has a commitment for reimbursement from New York State Indigent Legal Services for the assistant public defenders’ salaries, the paralegal’s salary, their benefits and ancillary expenses, such as gas. Every 90 days, the Public Defender’s Office plans to submit vouchers to Indigent Legal Services for reimbursement. The grant permits up to $670,000 reimbursement for up to three years.

As of December 4, the contract covering how the county will use the grant had been signed by the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, Matt Murrell (R-Stockport) and sent to the state agency for its signature. Once the county receives its copy of the contract signed by the state the search for nighttime assistant public defenders can commence.

Mr. Linville said he hoped this could happen by the end of the year.

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