WATERTOWN — Arraigning criminal defendants in Jefferson County can be a headache, but officials are hopeful they will be able to organize a new, centralized arraignment court to lighten the load.
County officials have been working for years to establish a Centralized Arraignment Part, a court located someplace central in the county with a rotating list of justices, assistant district attorneys and public defenders available to arraign everyone in the county who is accused of crimes serious enough to warrant pre-trial detention.
Jefferson County Deputy Administrator Sarah H. Baldwin said the county is in conversation with the Fifth Judicial District, the state Supreme Court jurisdiction that has oversight over all local courts, as well as the local Magistrates Association, which represents judges and other people who work in the courts, law enforcement, the district attorney’s office and the public defender’s office. All of these stakeholders have been working together since 2017 to establish a centralized arraignment system.
Under the CAP system, when someone is arrested by any of the law enforcement agencies in Jefferson County, instead of being held by the arresting agency until a court can be found, the arrested person would be taken to the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building in Watertown, arraigned by a local judge who is scheduled to hold arraignment court that day and either is released or held in the county jail.
The court would be in session in the evenings, after town and village courts end their workdays.
“It’s not going to be fancy, whatever it is,” Mrs. Baldwin said. “We may have chairs and a raised table in the lobby of the public safety building.”
Mrs. Baldwin said the CAP system would be a more organized, predictable way to handle arraignments for the towns and villages in the county than the current system.
Law enforcement officers, under state law, must retain custody of the people they arrest until they can issue a ticket or find a local court and justice available to arraign the accused. Currently, the Jefferson County Magistrates Association, which represents lawyers, judges and clerks, lays out a rotating schedule for justices to serve on-call. One justice is on call per night typically, and if someone is arrested in Jefferson County, that person is taken to whichever courtroom the on-call justice operates out of and arraigned. Representatives from the public defender’s office and sometimes the district attorney’s office also have to make the trip to the court.
Local Magistrates Association President and Cape Vincent Town Justice Colleen M. Knuth said that system is awful, and it is discouraging local justices from adding their names to the on-call schedule. Only eight of the 39 justices in Jefferson County have offered to take on-call shifts in August, she said.
“It’s really a hassle to come in, set up all the equipment, wait for the right people to arrive and hold the arraignment,” Judge Knuth said. “It’s very convoluted, and at 2 a.m. it’s very difficult to do.”
She said the Magistrates Association did not have much say in how the on-call system was implemented, and some costs have become a concern. All judges are paid by the state of New York, but no matter where the individual being arraigned has been charged, the town or village court they are being arraigned in pays to produce the first set of documents for their case. When some cases can require entire reams of paper, Judge Knuth said local governments are ending up paying thousands of dollars for cases they have little interest in prosecuting, cases that have no bearing on the taxpayers footing the bill.
The trip to the on-call court can be long for law enforcement and the defendant as well. If the on-call justice is in Ellisburg and someone is arrested in Cape Vincent, law enforcement and the defendant would have to drive across the county for arraignment. If the defendant is released after that arraignment, they have to be taken back to the town they were arrested in for release.
Judge Knuth said justices cannot be compelled to participate in the on-call system, and every month she has seen more people take their names off the volunteer list.
“I’m worried about next month,” she said. “We could have only five judges on the roster, and then how would we arraign people in time?”
Further cementing the need for these changes, Mrs. Baldwin said recent criminal justice reforms have changed timelines and increased the required involvement from the public defender’s office. In January 2020, the rules about when the accused should have a lawyer defending them were unexpectedly changed.
As a result of the Hurrell-Harring lawsuit from 2014, people accused of crimes are now required to have legal representation at their arraignment hearing unless they waive their right to defense. Typically, that representation comes from the public defender’s office.
The current system of arraigning criminal defendants in whatever town or village court is on-call, coupled with the new requirement that defense be present for arraignment, has put incredible strain on the public defender’s office.
“Our public defender had been doing every arraignment at all hours of the night anywhere in the county for a few months, and then she got her staff involved,” Mrs. Baldwin said.
The COVID-19 pandemic had an unexpected consequence on this process, by forcing courts around the state to move to virtual hearings. Judge Knuth said justices essentially worked in a virtual CAP court for the duration of the state of emergency, with nearly every participant in court proceedings joining from home via Zoom. That eliminated the travel requirements for everyone involved, and Judge Knuth said the local justices are hopeful that efforts to reinstate virtual arraignments in the county will work out.
There are five counties in New York currently able to conduct virtual arraignments in normal operations, all included in a law passed in the early 1990s. State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, has authored legislation that would add Jefferson County to that list, allowing the county to return to virtual arraignments.
“That would be our preferred option,” Judge Knuth said. “Plan B would be an in-person CAP court.”
Judge Knuth said there have been a number of times since 2017 that the Magistrates Association, law enforcement, county leadership and officials from the Fifth Judicial District have discussed putting together a CAP court, but those efforts have not borne fruit. She is hopeful that the current efforts, with more input from the Magistrates Association, will be more effective.
Mrs. Baldwin said the county is currently pulling together more information from local law enforcement and the Magistrates Association to put in another proposal to send to the Fifth Judicial District before the end of July.
Mrs. Knuth said she hopes a new arraignment system can be developed quickly, because the current one is just not working.
“We need to do something soon,” she said.