ANCRAM—The saying, “The wheels of justice turn slowly,” may never have been more true than during this Covid-19 pandemic.
At the final public hearing on the 2021 Ancram Town Budget in November, Councilman Hugh Clark noted that court activity has been “minimized” and, should court operations be forced to cease altogether, less revenues from the court could be the result.
The councilman said that under current court procedure rules, any matter that requires a witness has been put on hold.
Town Justice Cathy Redlich said the “no testimony” directive “eliminates a lot of things, but not vehicle and traffic” cases, many of which are being dealt with by mail.
Ancram is not alone in operating under these new court protocols brought about by Covid-19.
There are 21 town and village courts and one City Court in Columbia County, according to information provided by David A. Dellehunt, special counsel to the town and village courts in the Third Judicial District, which includes Albany, Columbia, Greene, Rensselaer, Schoharie, Sullivan and Ulster counties.
Mr. Dellehunt, who also serves as justice for the Town and Village of Kinderhook courts, passes on Covid-19-related protocols to county and local courts in Columbia County, he told The Columbia Paper this week.
“We are given administrative orders from the Unified Court System,” which come from the chief and administrative court judges. The administrative orders have specifications for all county, city, town and village courts to follow. Applicable Administrative Orders that dictate court operations during the pandemic are found at the official home page of the New York State Unified Court System, nycourts.gov . Click on “Coronavirus and the NY State Courts” and then “Administrative Orders.”
Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka, whose office has dealings with all county and local courts here, said in a phone interview this week that where courts are operating they are doing it virtually.
He said that as far as he is aware, only the county and the City of Hudson courts are operating this way, which requires special court-approved software.
Mr. Dellehunt said by email, “Presently only a limited number of courts have the capability of holding virtual arraignments. The court, police agency, defense counsel, and defendant must all possess the necessary equipment and training to make it work, and the proceeding can only be held virtually upon consent of the defendant and counsel.”
DA Czajka said courts are still doing in-person arraignments for serious offenses like felonies and DWI (driving while intoxicated.)
The district attorney has directed all his assistant district attorneys (ADAs) not to interact with any defendants who they do not know. He said the only defendants ADAs would interact with under normal circumstances are those involved in traffic cases who have no lawyer. He said otherwise ADAs interact with the defendant’s attorney.
The district attorney said the directive was his idea and not one that is mandated.
He said that if just one ADA tested positive for the coronavirus, “We’d all be quarantined and the whole criminal justice system would be shut down.”
Mr. Czajka said that “By and large, all the courts of Columbia County, notwithstanding a few issues, have been extremely cooperative and patient.”
He has established a uniform plea-bargain policy for dealing with most traffic infractions.
Defendants involved in these cases, can fill out a form online available on the DA’s website: /columbiacountyny.com/district_attorney/ and clicking on “Vehicle and Traffic Charge Request for Reduction” in the left column.
The form is for persons seeking a reduction from a charge of speeding or from any other Vehicle and Traffic Violation, it says. Reductions for a charge of aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle (AUO) or suspended registration will not be considered unless driving records show all license and registration suspensions and revocations have been resolved and the applicant has a currently valid driver’s license.
‘By and large, all the courts of Columbia County, not withstanding a few issues, have been extremely cooperative and patient.’
Columbia County DA
Also, if charges include DWI, driving while ability impaired (DWAI), a Penal Law offense, or if the applicant was involved in an accident in which someone died or suffered an injury, the applicant is not eligible to apply for a reduction by this method.
After the form is filled out and all applicable materials are sent to the DA’s Office, an ADA will review the case and mail a written response to the applicant, which may take up to several weeks due to the large number of requests received.
Those who receive an acceptable offer from the District Attorney, should sign it and mail it to the court at the address found on the ticket.
If the local court does not approve of the agreement, the case will be scheduled for trial.
Mr. Czajka noted that all defendants have the right to plead guilty and that plea cannot be disapproved by the court.
The district attorney said he is aware of the tremendous backlog of trials throughout the county and knew that was imminent at the time the whole Covid-19 response began.
He said he knows that a number of courts have been scheduling trials for dates in the spring, but whether they will actually happen remains to be seen.
Asked about a defendant’s right to a speedy trial, Mr. Czajka said, that right “does not apply to traffic tickets.”
While it does apply to misdemeanors and felonies, the DA said the governor has suspended state laws that protect constitutional rights, including to a speedy trial, though “there is some disagreement about whether he has that authority.”