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Court Delays in The Bronx are Unconstitutional, New Lawsuit Claims

By Eddie Small | May 11, 2016 3:52pm
 A new lawsuit argues that delays in the Bronx court system for minor offenses are unconstitutional.
A new lawsuit argues that delays in the Bronx court system for minor offenses are unconstitutional.
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DNAinfo/Jeanmarie Evelly

CONCOURSE — Court delays for people charged with minor offenses in The Bronx have gotten so bad that they violate defendants' right to a speedy trial, according to a federal lawsuit filed in Manhattan Federal Court Tuesday.

Lawyers at the Bronx Defenders brought the suit against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Chief Judge of New York Janet DiFiore and Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks for not sufficiently reforming the system.

"Adjournment after adjournment, people wait for hours to see a judge only to be told to come back yet another day. The months often turn into years," the suit reads. "People’s lives are put on hold as their fate hangs in the balance. The process can feel interminable."

The suit includes several examples of people who had to wait for years and endure several court appearances before their trials were completed, including John Carridice, a 38-year-old father of four who was arrested in September 2012 after trying to break up a fight but did not stand trial until June 2015, when he was acquitted of all charges.

The delays made it difficult for him to work and severely disrupted his attempt to earn an associate's degree in psychology from Bronx Community College, the suit says.

Michael Torres, a 43-year-old construction worker, went through a similar experience, as he was arrested for marijuana possession on his way to a job interview in September 2011 and did not have his case dismissed until February 2014, at which point he had already been fired from his job for missing too many days due to court appearances, according to the suit.

“After waiting all that time, I wasn’t even able to have my day in court,” Torres said in a statement. “I did everything I was supposed to do, but the system failed me. I joined this case because I want to ensure this doesn’t happen to others.”

The state's speedy trial statute requires prosecutors to be ready to bring misdemeanor cases to trial within 60 to 90 days of arraignment, but 2,916 misdemeanor cases in The Bronx had been pending for more than a year as of January, according to the Bronx Defenders.

Bronxites wait an average of 827 days for a jury trial, compared to 414 days in Manhattan, 496 days in Brooklyn and 558 days in Queens, the group said.

“Years of persistent delays in misdemeanor cases have made the promise of justice an illusion for tens of thousands of people charged with low-level offenses every year in the Bronx,” Bronx Defenders Executive Director Robin Steinberg said in a statement.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the Bronx court system deprives people charged with misdemeanors of their rights to due process and a speedy trial and asks for "appropriate equitable relief," which could include additional resources for or systemic reforms to the borough's court system.

Courts in The Bronx have been plagued with delays for years, and 10 judges from outside of the city were temporarily assigned to the borough in 2013 to help it deal with a serious backlog of felony cases.

Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said they are reviewing the complaint.

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the state court system, said he would not comment on the merits of the lawsuit but described backlogs and delays as "an absolute top priority" for DiFiore that she is working to resolve.

The law firms Morrison & Foerster and Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady joined the Bronx Defenders in filing the suit.

"Our justice system can do better than this. People in The Bronx are living out the Kafka story, 'Before the Law,' about a gatekeeper who refuses to grant entry to the court," Morrison & Foerster partner Gary Lee said in a statement. "We expect through this lawsuit that the courtroom doors will be opened once and for all."