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Public defenders sue state to stop in-person criminal proceedings during COVID crisis

July 16, 2020 David Brand
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Six public defender organizations sued the state Tuesday to stop in-person criminal court proceedings amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

The complaint, filed in Manhattan Federal Court, claims the state Office of Court Administration has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by forcing defendants and attorneys with pre-existing medical conditions to visit courthouses for arraignments and case conferences.

It also says New York’s court system “rushed” the courthouse reopening plan after providing contradictory information to public defenders earlier this month.

The resumption of in-person proceedings amid the COVID-19 pandemic “will endanger the lives of thousands of New Yorkers by perpetuating the spread of this virus and burden the constitutional rights to access the courts and to due process of law,” the public defender groups write in their complaint.

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Until Monday, arraignments, case conferences and other Criminal Court proceedings were handled remotely, with defendants appearing by video conference since March.

The plaintiffs include the Legal Aid Society, Queens Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, The Bronx Defenders, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem and New York County Defender Service. The organizations, which represent low-income defendants in Criminal Court, say they have “at least hundreds of clients and staff members” with medical conditions that put them at increased risk from COVID-19.

These clients, the majority of whom are people of color, “face the tragic and illegal choice between their fundamental right to participate in their own cases and their health and safety,” the lawsuit states.

The public defender groups first threatened to sue the state court system over the reopening plan in a letter on Sunday first reported on by the Eagle.

OCA did not immediately respond to an email Tuesday after the lawsuit was filed.

On Monday, OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen said the court system has gradually resumed in-person operations and public defender organizations have already agreed to some appearances.

“As we begin our entirely legal plan for a slow return to normalized operations, with a focus on personal health and safety, we are calendaring approximately 10 in-person cases a day in each court,” Chalfen said. “The defender organizations had already agreed to, and we have already held, in-person appearances for some of their clients.

“Now they want the court system to regress offering no solutions only demands,” he added.

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