Blog by David Roche, on behalf of Sivin, Miller & Roche LLP:
Like every other institution and organization, the criminal courts of New York City are figuring out how to adapt and function in the drastically changed world of the Coronavirus pandemic. The criminal courts with which we have long been accustomed – with crowded courtrooms full of lawyers, court officers, clerks, and audience members – are dangerous breeding grounds for spread of the virus; and, needless to say, cramped holding pens and jail cells full of people are a nightmare for those who have been arrested and for their loved ones.
The courts have adjusted in the short term by instituting online video appearances for arraignments and other essential proceedings and by adjourning all post arraignment cases and trials for several weeks. Since it seems we are still in the early stages of the pandemic, the courts will continue to have to adapt and institute new procedures in order to be able to function.
For now, a system of video arraignments has been set up in the criminal courts of the five boroughs, through which the judge, lawyers, and court reporter can appear by video connection from each of their remote locations. The person arrested is then brought to a camera in the court building and the arraignment proceeds. Prior to the parties all coming together on screen for the arraignment, the defense lawyer is given an opportunity to speak to his/her/their client by private video connection, and the arraignment proceeding doesn’t take place until after this lawyer-client video meeting has taken place.
Obviously, this new system makes a lot more sense than everyone continuing to pack into courtrooms. However, the people arrested don’t seem to be significantly more protected than they were under the regular in-person arraignment system. They are still being transported from police precincts to central booking at the court houses where they are held for many hours in often crowded holding pens waiting for their turn to be brought before the judge and arraigned. In recent days, a 60-something year-old client of Sivin, Miller & Roche LLP was forced to sit without a protective mask in a crowded central booking holding pen for close to twelve hours while awaiting video arraignment.
It seems that the new video arraignment procedures advance the safety of all of the participants except the person being arraigned.
As the courts continue to adapt to this crisis, hopefully greater priority can be placed on protecting the health and safety of people under arrest. It seems counterintuitive that lawyers, judges, and court reporters can be accommodated to conduct a court proceeding from the safety of their homes or offices while arrestees are transported from all corners of the city to be held in tight quarters for many hours before being arraigned in front of a video camera.
Surely the criminal courts should consider linking by video to the police precincts so that an accused person can appear for his/her/their arraignment by video link from an interview room at the precinct, rather than having to be held at a centralized courthouse with a vastly greater number of detainees and a vastly greater risk of exposure to the virus. If defendants were to be arraigned by video while at the precinct, then most could be released from the precinct (many of whom could then walk home), and relatively few would have to be transported to central booking and to jail.
The lawyers and staff of Sivin, Miller & Roche LLP are working hard during this difficult time to help our clients and their families navigate a much different and constantly changing court system. We remain as determined as ever to fight for out clients’ freedom and to ensure that their rights are protected.