Many court appearances and arraignments in NYC had already been happening by video in recent days. The state’s Office of Court Administration disseminated a memo last week detailing a transition of even more criminal court business to video. The memo, which takes effect Monday, would give more latitude to local courts to cut down on in-person appearances.
“In just over a week we have re-engineered how essential matters are being heard in criminal and family court as we continue to expand what matters we can hear virtually,” said Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for OCA.
But while the expansion of remotely-administered justice in New York’s criminal courts is seen by many as an important measure amid public health concerns, it is raising civil rights concerns as in-person appearances are crucial to the criminal justice process.
“It creates this barrier to representation,” said Ilona Coleman, legal director of the Bronx Defenders’ Criminal Defense Practice. “This is sort of unfortunately the situation we’re in, but I could see this being a problem.”
The memo, dated March 26, presents a two-step procedure for emergency applications along with actions to drastically reduce in-person appearances, where possible.
Attorneys must request that an essential matter — including bail applications and resentencing for incarcerated defendants — be scheduled, mostly by video, with a county court.
When a case cannot be accommodated on the county level, it may be sent forward to a court accepting emergency business citywide, the memo says, “particularly if a video appearance of a defendant in [custody] is required.”
The move has been characterized by OCA as a critical step to keeping the courts open in the wake of a disruptive global pandemic. Some court staff still appeared last week as virtual arraignments kicked off, such as clerks and security personnel, lawyers told POLITICO.
But some attorneys are unsure of what the expansion will mean for their clients. Public defenders POLITICO spoke to expressed a range of concerns about the move’s impact on clients accused of crimes or those already incarcerated, citing a potential for delays.
Some voiced concern about the courts’ ability to transition to the virtual realm, saying its capacity to hear cases could potentially be reduced. Others cited evidence-gathering challenges and the establishment of trust with their clients as potential hurdles.
“Seeing someone over a video feed is definitely different than seeing them in person. And you’re not going to pick up on as many details about them as seeing them face to face,” said Maryanne Kaishian, a senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defenders Services.
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