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The Impact of the COVID-19 on New York Federal and State Cases and Inmates

Covid-19 has affected the New York state and federal justice system in a variety of ways, including the manner in which court hearings are held, the enforcement of a defendant’s right to a speedy trial, and plea bargains. It has also resulted in the release of a number of prison inmates due to humanitarian and safety concerns.  

Summary of Current New York State Bail Reform Laws

In New York, anyone who is arrested must be arraigned by a judge before they can be released, unless he is issued a Desk Appearance Ticket (DAT), which operates as a sort of “get out of jail free card.” To stay out of jail between arraignment and trial, defendants may be required to post bail. 

Historic state bail reform laws were implemented a few weeks before the Covid-19 crisis began. Under the new bail policies, most non-violent offenders are not required to put up bail to stay out of jail before their trial. Nevertheless, since the defendant must still show up in person for the arraignment itself, the defendant without a DAT can still be held in jail for a significant period (perhaps 36 hours or less) before the arraignment.  

Covid-19’s Effect on Bail Bond Hearings

Although opponents are working to rescind New York’s bail reforms, New York’s reduced reliance on the bail system during the Covid-19 crisis greatly alleviates pressure to hold in-person bail hearings during a pandemic whose conditions demand that such proceedings be minimized. The reforms will also help New York deal with the legal challenges when someone’s bail is denied at a remote hearing using videoconferencing technology. 

Legal challenges are inevitable, of course, but they will be reduced in number due to New York’s bail reforms. Since no such reforms occurred in the New York federal criminal justice system, expect legal challenges to video conference bail denials to continue for the foreseeable future. 

Covid-19’s Effect on Substantive Criminal Law

Has the Covid-19 crisis resulted in new criminal laws being passed? No. Although a stay-at-home order was in place for a while, violations were not treated as crimes. Likewise, violations of business closure orders result in a fine and closure of the business, not criminal charges against the business owner. Repeated violations could, of course, result in restraining orders, a violation of which could result in criminal charges. 

Covid-19’s Effect on Procedural Criminal Law

Many courts closed temporarily during the height of the state’s Covid-19 crisis, and they may do so again if a second wave washes over the state. Even if a second wave does not occur, a large backlog of cases is likely to burden the judicial system for some time to come.

Court Closures and Modifications

Court closures were extensive during the height of the Covid-19 crisis. The following is an abbreviated summary of some of the court closures that took effect beginning in March 2020.

New York State Court System

All nonessential court activities were suspended on March 16th, 2020

  • No new criminal trials were started during the suspension period. In some cases, defendants were incarcerated during the entirety of the suspension period.
  • Special courtrooms were established in certain designated courthouses to handle “essential matters.”
  • The disposition of non-trial felony criminal matters such as motions to suppress, etc. was postponed, as long as the defendant was not incarcerated at the time.
  • The disposition of non-trial felony criminal matters where the defendant was in custody could be resolved through videoconferencing in certain cases. In other cases, matters such as these were simply postponed.
  • Arraignments took place through videoconferencing to the extent that local technology allowed (some remote locations lacked access to this technology).

Federal Courts

In most cases, New York federal courts are completely independent of New York state courts. The federal lockdown included the following features:

  • At the height of the Covid-19 crisis, the New York federal courts suspended jury selection and all jury trials, including criminal trials for several weeks (exceptions were allowed in certain cases). Even bench trials, where no jury sits and the judge decides the case, were suspended during this period. 
  • Criminal matters before a magistrate were continued in person, with certain exceptions where such matters were resolved by telephone or videoconferencing.

The 6th Amendment Right to a Speedy Trial

The 6th Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees every criminal defendant a speedy trial. This is meant to avoid the possibility that he will languish in prison for an extended period due to being charged with a crime he did not actually commit and that he will eventually be acquitted of. 

One of the main purposes of this rule is to prevent prosecutors, who lack evidence to convict a suspect, from holding him indefinitely, thereby forcing them to, in effect, serve a full sentence for a crime that he may or may not have committed. Someone who is charged with a crime and who is denied a speedy trial can claim a violation of his 6th amendment rights. 

The Covid-19 Challenge

How do you guarantee a right to a speedy trial when courts are closed due to a virus pandemic? One way to do this is to take advantage of the ambiguity in the term itself – how soon must a “speedy” trial take place, and to what extent can it be modified by circumstances? 

In New York, the Covid-19 crisis was used to justify delays in criminal trials of several weeks. Such a short delay under the circumstances might be seen as consistent with a criminal defendant’s right to a speedy trial, especially if the defendant was not incarcerated during the delay. Nevertheless, the closure of courts has created a long backlog of cases that will persist long after courts have opened back up.

Since New York state and federal courts are still dealing with this backlog, it remains to be seen to what extent the criminal justice system will be forced to resort to the dismissal of charges. If the courts reduce this backlog within a reasonable time, they might be forced to dismiss charges against many criminal defendants, no matter what the evidence against them.

Plea Bargains

In the United States, plea bargains are the rule rather than the exception. In a plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser offense and, in exchange, the prosecutor agrees to recommend that the judge accept the plea. Prosecutors agree to plea bargains when they are uncertain whether they can win in court and when they need to reduce crowded dockets.

The court closures and the resulting backlogs in cases have greatly increased pressure on prosecutors to offer and accept plea bargains. That still doesn’t mean a defendant should plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit, but in many cases, pressure on prosecutors to secure plea bargains can work in favor of a criminal defendant.

Effect on Inmates

Covid-19 is spreading through New York state prisons. In addition to inmates falling ill, hundreds of staff members in the New York state prison system had tested positive for COVID-19 by late April 2020, very early in the pandemic. 

Although the situation is moving too rapidly for any number inserted into a blog post to be meaningful, suffice it to say that Covid-19 numbers have significantly increased in both state and federal prisons in New York, including the Albany area. Nevertheless, the feared explosion in cases has not occurred, at least outside of New York City.  

Release of Aging Prisoners

In response to the spread of Covid-19 in state prisons, the state of New York is releasing certain aging prisoners due to their particular vulnerability to hospitalization and death due to Covid-19. 

To qualify for early release, an inmate must:

  • be at least 55 years old;
  • have 90 days or less remaining on his sentence; and
  • have not been convicted of a sex offense or a violent felony.

Federal Inmates

In March 2020 Attorney General William Barr ordered federal prisons throughout the nation to release certain inmates due to the Covid-19 crisis. To qualify for release from federal prison, an inmate must:

  • be at least 60 years old; and
  • have never been convicted of a violent or sexual offense.

A high-profile beneficiary of the federal inmate release program was Paul Manafort, former campaign chairman for President Trump, who left federal prison to serve out the remainder of his sentence under home confinement.

Contact Us Immediately with Your Concerns

We live in dangerous times – times when social distancing requirements are challenging what it means to be human. If you believe that the New York state or federal criminal justice system has victimized you by using the Covid-19 crisis as an excuse to treat you unfairly, well, that doesn’t surprise us.

In any case, if you are in trouble with the New York state or the federal criminal justice system, you need to act immediately to retain an experienced defense lawyer. Contact Hacker Murphy, through our online contact page or by telephone, for a free consultation. Although we have offices located in Albany, Colonie, Schenectady, Saratoga, and Troy, we will be happy to speak with you over the telephone.