State Mandate Requires Hiring
Of 7 Local Public Defenders
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
TOWN OF MIDDLEFIELD – Otsego County’s new centralized court at the county jail in the Town of Middlefield means no more 3 a.m. phone calls seeking arraignments from Town of Otsego Judge Gary Kuch.
“I’ve had nights where I’ve been called in and we have to call around, and then wait 45 minutes for a public defender,” said Kuch. “Now, justices and public defenders take slots, so there’s always someone available.”
Officially known as Centralized Arraignment Parts, (CAP) was signed into law by Governor Cuomo in 2016, but was just implemented locally Oct. 1, with the construction of the Centralized Courtroom in the jail lobby.
“Prior to the opening of the CAP, the Otsego County Public Defender’s Office lacked the resources to staff arraignments which were conducted 24 hours a day, seven days a week, across a county that is more than 1,000 square miles with 26 different local criminal courts,” said Lucian Chalfen, the state Unified Court Systems’ director of public information.
“With all arraignments now taking place in one location the county Public Defender’s Office, supplemented by the county Assigned Counsel Plan, is able to staff all arraignments, without the need for the county to spend a significant additional amount of money on additional attorneys.”
According to attorney Mike Trosset, the county’s recently appointed public defender, the arrangement assures that defendants now have an attorney present for their now-centralized arraignments in town court.
“Having an attorney helps with input on appropriate bail or detention,” said Trosset. “A year ago, you could be arraigned without an attorney present. Now, they’re right there when someone is arrested. It’s better for the defendant.”
Trosset said the Public Defender’s Office has hired additional staff, raising staffing to eight lawyers, five fulltime and three parttime for family and criminal courts.
Town justices and public defenders sign up for shifts and are on call. “I may get a call at 2 a.m., but do an arraignment for someone arrested in Pittsfield,” said Kuch.
Following the arraignment, the paperwork then is filed on site and sent by email and postal mail to the court in the town where the defendant was arrested, and additional court dates are held there.
“I’ve done one night, but I think it’s working very well,” he said.
Among those recently arraigned at the centralized court was Nicolas Meridy, 32, accused in the burglary and murder of Kenneth Robinson, 53, Worcester. Meridy was arraigned on Friday, Oct. 11, in the jail lobby, then his felony hearing was Thursday, Oct. 17 in Worcester town court.
But not everyone is on board with the process.
“It doesn’t work well,” said District Attorney John Muehl. “You have to wake up whoever is on duty and they have to drive there, there’s no clerk, so they have to log into the system and do all the paperwork themselves. Now it takes two hours to arraign someone.”
Said Sheriff Richard J. Devlin Jr., “I don’t think it’s an Upstate problem. We didn’t have this issue” – poor representation at initial arraignment – “in Otsego County.”
However, he did say that it has helped get patrol officers back on the road, as they are no longer having to wait with a defendant while a judge and an attorney are located. But a corrections officer is pulled from the jail, making staffing there temporarily short-handed.
The Sheriff’s Department also has holding cells, which most jurisdictions did not, so defendants until their lawyer arrives. The holding cells were built last year where the 911 dispatch center used to be.
Phase II of the plan, which will start after Jan. 1, 2020, will schedule two arraignment periods every day, 6-8 a.m. and 6-8 p.m., with defendants being kept in the holding cell pending the scheduled proceedings. For instance, someone apprehended at 9 p.m. would be held overnight until 6 a.m.