Judges, Lawyers Operating On Skype
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – Even the courtroom has gone virtual in the age of COVID-19.
“If the arraignment is essential, like a felony arraignment, we’ve got Skype set up in the courtroom,” said District Attorney John Muehl. “An email gets sent around with the information, then the judge, myself and the lawyers can all be present, but nobody has to appear.”
With all cases adjourned until May 15, no one’s appeared virtually yet, but the courts want to be ready. “Arraignments are necessary proceedings,” Muehl said. “For example, if we had a domestic violence case where an order of protection had to be issued, we could arraign them.”
And though a defendant is entitled to a felony hearing, time limits to do so have been suspended. But due to bail reform, Muehl said that he wasn’t seeing many felony hearings at the time the court closed, anyhow.
Other appearances have been adjourned, including the sentencing for Gabriel Truitt, found guilty in January of the 2018 arson and murder in death of John Heller, 36, the former Oneonta fireman. Truitt’s sentencing was scheduled for April 3, and although it has been rescheduled for May 8, Muehl has doubts.
“I think everything will be adjourned again until June,” he said.
Meanwhile, County Court Judge Brian Burns has kept his docket full using teleconferencing. “This morning I had a call with my drug court coordinator and my chief clerk,” he said. “Three weeks ago I would have had no idea how to do that!”
Essential matters, including drug court, juvenile delinquency, neglect and placing a child in foster care are ongoing, though full hearings, including custody hearings, have been suspended.
“By next week, hopefully, we’ll be able to do hearings on ‘non-essential’ matters over the phone or Skype,” said Burns.
He sympathizes with those whose hearings have been delayed indefinitely. “For litigants, it’s terrible,” he said. “But we’re using that time as best we can.”
In Cooperstown, Muehl has been using the time to catch up on his own cases. “I’m in the office every day,” he said. “We’ve been working on streamlining things. When everything opens back up, we’ll be back to where we were, but we’ll be more efficient.”
“We’re trying to make the best of a terrible situation,” said Burns. “But we’re preparing for however long it takes so that we can keep our branch of the government open.
And when calls come in, Oneonta Police Chief Doug Brenner has changed the way his officers handle the calls in order to keep themselves and the public safe.
“We’re handling a lot of complaints over the phone,” he said. “Before, we used to go to the scene and try to figure out the issue, but if we can just take it in the call that’s better.”
When officers do deem it necessary go on a call, Brenner said, they don’t go into houses or buildings unless absolutely necessary, and maintain social distance between themselves and the people involved. “When we get a dispatch from 911, they tell us if it’s a possible hot spot,” he said. “We have to be more situationally aware now.”
Brenner also said that his officers are writing tickets “four to six weeks out,” to minimize the burden on the court system.
The police are also tasked with breaking up large group gatherings. “It’s usually teens or college-age students in the park,” he said. “And they’re all cooperative, we just tell them they have to go.”