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Justice reform: New discovery rules

Jerry Gretzinger
Created: December 13, 2019 07:03 PM

NewsChannel 13 Investigates recently took a closer look at New York's criminal justice reforms that go into effect January 1, walking you through the debate over changes to the bail system.

However, there's another piece of the reforms even more worrisome to police officials and district attorneys.

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District attorneys say discovery will affect their ability to provide justice for victims.

Discovery essentially means handing over all your information and evidence - so everyone knows what to expect at trial.

How long prosecutors have to do that under New York's new justice reforms is just 15 days.

Albany County District Attorney David Soares says it borders on the impossible.

“We've yet to really interview all the victims. We have yet to really interview all of the witnesses involved in the case. So we're talking about the infancy stages of a case - that we literally have to turn over all of this material,” said Soares.

He claims only about 20 percent of their cases ever require any discovery, because most end with plea deals. However, the reforms prevent any plea offer from being made until the completion of discovery.

“We now must turn over discovery in 100-percent of all of our cases,” said Soares.

Saratoga County District Attorney Karen Heggen says when needed, discovery usually happens within 45 days to two months - and that having to provide full discovery on every case in 15 days - is like taking your workload and multiplying it by eight.

She believes their ability to provide justice for all parties is on the line. 

“The increase of work is just beyond substantial,” said Heggen.

The short discovery time frame is also putting the crunch on police.

“My officer’s now going to be behind a desk right away, not back on the street where he belongs,” said Ballston Spa Chief David Bush.

With just two officers on patrol per shift, Bush says whenever they make an arrest, officers will have to immediately assemble all paperwork and evidence for the district attorney. He's afraid of the impact it will have, since the new discovery rules even apply to things like simple traffic infractions.

“It's critical. We don't have a guy on the road where he belongs,” said Bush.

Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple says they compile all kinds of evidence, including body cam video. He argues getting everything to the district attorney - in a usable format in a matter of days, is an unnecessarily tall order.

“My problem with it is that I'm fearful that people are going to fall through the cracks,” said Apple.

That's not all law enforcement is worried about. 

“There's also a provision in the new laws that allow defendants and their attorneys to return to the scene of the crime - even if that is within someone's home,” noted Heggen.

It also says all victim and witness information - names, phone numbers, addresses - have to be provided to the defense in 15 days. 

Heggen says it could make people reconsider reporting crimes for fear of retribution.

“It's a lot of baloney,” said Albany Defense Attorney Terry Kindlon.

He says the concerns sound scary, but are being overblown.

“If there's a concern - this is in the statute, if there's a concern that a defendant might get too much information about the people, the DA can go to the judge and the judge can say, ‘Okay, I'm going to make this information available to the lawyer, but not to the client,’” said Kindlon.

There’s also a provision that allows district attorneys to request a 30-day extension to the 15-day discovery timeline. Kindlon does not dispute the reforms do present some workflow changes for prosecutors, but adds it's not the 1970s anymore, either.

“I wonder when I listen to these DAs if they work in offices or you know, steel mills. I mean, for God's sakes, everything now is capable of being digitized,” said Kindlon.

However, Soares says he's got a dozen police agencies he works with - with many on different technology platforms - and it's been a struggle getting everyone on the same page.

“I cannot articulate to you whether or not things are going to be as seamless as we're hoping,” said Soares.

Yes, they've had eight months to prepare, but New Jersey's bail reforms - which Governor Cuomo's office has compared New York’s to - were phased in over time - and came with funding. They’re still facing a budget crisis today.

Assemblyman John McDonald says the reforms are not perfect - but he supports them.

“Are there some aspects on the bail reform that I have concerns with - yes,” said McDonald.

That's why he also supports a temporary delay in implementation to address things like funding and resources.

Governor Cuomo has given no indication that will happen.

He and his staff were invited to be interviewed for our reports, but did not accept.


Copyright 2019 - WNYT-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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