PART II: JUSTICE FOR ALL?
Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a three-part series on New York State’s justice reforms, which go into effect Jan. 1.
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN –Fifteen days is nowhere near enough time to marshall all evidence in a criminal case, argued District Attorney John Muehl.
But that’s what the justice reforms that came out of Albany during the state Legislature’s last session will require. They go into effect Jan. 1.
“The new ‘discovery requirements’ mean the prosecution has to get everything from the police within 15 days of arraignment so that we can turn it over to the defense,” he said during a presentation to local police officers on the state’s new discovery requirements on Thursday, Nov. 21.
The crowd include sheriff’s deputies, Oneonta police, village police, state troopers. Oneonta Police Chief Doug Brenner was among attendees.
Muehl gave an example. “So let’s say you pull over someone on I-88 for speeding and you find five pounds of heroin in their trunk. You have to test it, but those lab results aren’t under our control, so we can’t comply with those 15 days.”
In that case, he said, police would have no choice but to take the heroin as evidence, but let the defendant go. The defendant could only be indicted and arrested after the lab results came back proving the substance was heroin. That could take 6-8 months.
“The governor thinks we should have no problem finding them,” Muehl said sarcastically.
Failure to comply, he said, means the case could be dismissed. “Why would the defense need to see our evidence in 15 days?” he said. “No one goes to trial in 15 days.”
And from the day of arraignment, he added, the new regulations mean the prosecution has six months to take the case to trial.
“We’re going to have a lot of people who commit serious crimes, but are never prosecuted, because we have to wait to get evidence,” he said. “And when we do get the evidence, we’re never going to find the criminal to arrest them.”
Chief among his concerns are making arrests of drug dealers. “We can indict them, but we might never find them,” he said. “And even if we do find them, now we can’t put bail on them.”
He also worries about the impact on the county’s Drug Court system. “When people go to Drug Court, it’s usually because they’re in jail, they’re finally sober and they realize that they need to make a change,” he said. “If we can’t arrest them, if we can’t put them in jail, they’re out there using.”
In addition to the tightened schedule for turning over evidence, Muehl said that the defense council has expanded rights to look at the evidence with the defendant present – even if it is the crime scene.
“I’m sure it’s very comforting to the victim of a break-in to have someone that same person come back in and look around,” he said.
Additionally, Muehl would have to make a motion to redact the names of undercover informants and witnesses. “How many confidential informants will we have if they know the defense can see them?” he said. “And if we’ve got someone who’s the victim of a stranger rape, we have to turn over the name and address of the victim so the defense can contact her.”
Since April, Muehl has been upgrading the DA’s office with electronic discovery programs, including the Digital Evidence Management System, to assist law enforcement with filing their evidence within the 15 days.
“You need to give me everything in your case file,” he said. “That means all of that has to be converted to an electronic format and filed in DEMS.”
The new regulations go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
“We just have to all work together and we’ll get through it,” Muehl said. “But I see a lot of fallout coming. The state doesn’t see that there’s any difference between a speeding ticket and a triple homicide.”