The tactics outlined encourage courtroom ‘dishonesty’ and ‘gamesmanship,’ legal experts argue.
In 2013, Ms. U*, a Bronx woman in her 40s, got into a scuffle with another resident in her building. The police, summoned by Ms. U, came about six hours later but made no arrests, and Ms. U thought that was the end of it. She had no prior criminal record and, according to a case dismissal motion filed by her attorney, her neighbor did not go to the hospital. Yet two weeks after the incident, police arrested Ms. U. Her charges, for allegedly grabbing her neighbor’s neck and hitting her on the left arm, resulted in a simple Class A misdemeanor that could have been resolved quickly. Instead, her case dragged on for three years until her defense attorney successfully moved to have the case dismissed.
The lengthy ordeal made life difficult for Ms. U. Not only did she have to make numerous court appointments and deal with the stress of a potential sentence, but she also had to abide by a court-mandated order of protection for her neighbor, who, according to court documents, would sometimes seek her out, thus putting Ms. U in danger of rearrest.
How does such a simple case go on for so long? Ms. U’s attorney says it was because Bronx prosecutors initially claimed they were ready for trial, but then at various intervals said they weren’t, which resulted in considerable delays between her hearings because of the Bronx’s clogged court calendar.
But internal training documents from the Bronx district attorney’s office, obtained by The Appeal, indicate that protracted cases like Ms. U’s are not simply the result of an overburdened court system. According to the documents, prosecutors are being taught courtroom techniques with the explicit goal of stretching out cases, thereby undermining defendants’ rights to a speedy trial.
The right to a speedy trial is enshrined in the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, but how it’s enforced at the state level is largely left to courts and state law. Many states require that a court date occur within a certain time frame, or the case gets dismissed. But New York is different. In New York, this speedy-trial “clock” is pegged to how long prosecutors can take to get “ready” to proceed: 60 days for Class B misdemeanors like graffiti and petty larceny and 90 days for Class A misdemeanors like Ms. U’s.
In practice, however, prosecutors can choose to easily manipulate this system, delaying trials for a year or longer. The documents obtained by The Appeal show that Bronx prosecutors are taught a strategy of declaring “readiness” in misdemeanor arraignments, like Ms. U’s, with the explicit goal of stopping the speedy-trial clock. This readiness is often declared by the Bronx DA’s office before a lead prosecutor has even been assigned to the case, interviewed every witness, or gathered necessary documents. Then, often months later, prosecutors can repeatedly say they are not ready, requesting small delays (one week here, one week there), which lead to months-long adjournments because of the court’s packed schedule.
The training documents indicate that such tactics are institutionalized in the Bronx, and although it’s impossible to know how many defendants that affects, cases in the Bronx drag on longer than those anywhere else in the city. In 2016, it took on average 38 percent longer to reach trial verdicts in the Bronx than it did citywide. That translates into hundreds of extra days on average that the borough’s defendants have to endure the repercussions of ongoing criminal cases.
Law professors and public defenders who have reviewed the documents say these delay tactics keep people in jail and in court unnecessarily, incentivize innocent people to take plea deals, and encourage implicit dishonesty in the courtroom. Former Bronx prosecutors point out that these tactics are legal, and argue they are an unavoidable consequence of enormous caseloads and a system that invites such conduct.
“New York’s idea of a prosecutorial readiness law rather than a speedy trial law has no parallel,” Jocelyn Simonson, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, told The Appeal. “Pinning the statutory speedy-trial clock to the prosecutor rather than the court lets the court system itself off the hook for delay. And, perversely, it gives a prosecutor who wants to delay a case a tool with which to do so in many cases. It’s the worst of both worlds.”