There is no doubt that the Corona Virus Pandemic has disrupted every aspect of New York life. This is especially true for New York lawyers practicing in New York Criminal Courts. With New York Courts closed except for essential matters, New York criminal lawyers and their clients find themselves having to navigate a whole new landscape that is having a major impact on criminal clients.
Consider just a few facts: New York Criminal Cases are often being adjourned into June or even July from March or April. What about the constitutional and statutory rights to a speedy trial? Under New York CPL 30.30 (1)(b), A prosecutor must be ready for trial within 90 days of the commencement of a criminal case where a client is charged with an “A” misdemeanor. Which means that many clients should be getting their cases dismissed when the Courts reopen. However, CPL 30.30 (4)(g), excludes from the 90 calculation periods of delay caused by “exceptional circumstances”. While I know of no Court that has ruled on this issue yet, I do not think it will be too long before Courts rule that all of the time occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic will be excluded under that section. This may raise many issues for clients.
What about the DWI client that was arraigned on a DWI in February and had their license suspended pending prosecution under New York law. We got her a hardship license so that she could drive to and from work but the client lost her job and so is not permitted to drive and her case has already been adjourned until June at the earliest. Four months after the arraignment.
Another DWI client of the firm should have had her case dismissed on speedy trial grounds. By January, the case was well past speedy trial and should have been dismissed so we filed a speedy trial motion. The matter is not scheduled to be heard again until mid June, over 5 months later. This client has serious DWI charges hanging over her head and limitations on her driving all on a case that should have been dismissed long ago.
Recently, we were hired to assist a tenant with a landlord-tenant dispute. While we were attempting to communicate with the landlord the landlord went to the police and accused our client of trespassing. The police issued a summons and got a judge to sign an order of protection which effectively evicted the client without any due process. While we are fighting to get the client back into the client’s residence, our fight is being slowed by the fact that the Courts are closed.
All of this is not to mention the many sitting in jail awaiting trial and the many sentenced prisoners who are vulnerable to coronavirus because of underlying medical conditions and who are in facilities that have active cases of coronavirus. In addition, due to the nature of a correctional facility, inmates do not have access to masks, gloves or hand sanitizers such as Purell.
Recently, we were asked to turn in a client to the NYPD on an Assault charge. Before we went to turn in the client, we learned that the precinct had been exposed to coronavirus and that several officers had been sickened. We of course postponed the arrest indefinitely until the pandemic abated.
There is a major concern among many lawyers that this pandemic will impede fundamental constitutional rights. As some of the examples above show, that is already happening. It is essential that we do not let this become an excuse to deprive criminal clients of their basic constitutional protections over the long term. This pandemic does not suspend the constitutional protections embodied in our constitution.
Navigating New York Criminal Courts can be daunting even under the best of circumstances. If you or a loved one faces criminal charges during these unprecedented times, contact the law firm that will fight to protect your rights.