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Long Island court proceedings are going virtual in age of coronavirus

New York City prosecutors began videoconferencing arraignments, or

New York City prosecutors began videoconferencing arraignments, or initial appearances, of defendants on March 25. Credit: New York State Unified Court System

Long Island courts have gone digital.

Courthouses from Mineola to Central Islip to Riverhead are basically empty as they follow state court directives to cease all nonessential judicial proceedings to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But defendants still need to appear before a judge soon after being arrested for an initial appearance, or arraignment, when a judge considers bail.

"My ADAs are holding arraignments from the comfort of their homes via Skype," said Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini in a phone interview, referring to assistant district attorneys. "It’s allowed us to essentially keep the system going while not putting our employees or others at risk."

The virtual arraignments and other emergency proceedings in Suffolk began March 20, said Sini, making the county the early leader of the practice in New York. Courts in Nassau County have moved over the last few days to video conferencing arraignments, though prosecutors are still required to be in courtrooms while defendants appear via video. 

Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said her office had created digital platforms to comply with the state's new accelerated discovery law, which are now ensuring a smooth flow of information between prosecutors and defense attorneys in the era of the coronavirus.

"There's nothing like a crisis to test our powers of innovation," said Singas, also in a phone interview as she worked from home. "We had already begun this incredible transition to electronic platforms when all that criminal justice reform came out. We were already at the forefront of going digital."

The five district attorney's offices in New York City began on March 25  to move to digital arraignments, according to Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the state Unified Court System. Nassau courts spokesman Dan Bagnuola said effective April 1, all Nassau court proceedings would be conducted via Skype video conferencing. 

"We're creating something that never existed, essentially overnight," said Chalfen, who acknowledged some technology challenges. "It's more than just sticking a widescreen TV up there."

The state has suspended all timelines in the criminal procedure law, including the new discovery and speedy trial rules after a request from the District Attorneys Association of New York, officials said, so most proceedings other than post-arrest arraignments have been postponed.

Bruce Barket, a Mineola-based defense attorney, decried the marked drop in court proceedings and said it was not sustainable long-term.

“They're only doing arraignments on new arrests and emergency proceedings. That would work for a snowstorm or even a hurricane for a couple of days," said Barket. "This is not something we should be doing for months. To leave people in jail and suspend speedy trial is outrageous. If the liquor stores are essential and can remain open, I think there ought to be a way to make these courts functional."

Singas says while the situation is unprecedented, "the system is functioning." She and other members of her executive team, less than a handful of people, have been to the office only sporadically, she said, while the rest of her about 400 employees work from home. There are frequent meetings.

"I speak to my staff probably more than they'd like to hear from me," Singas said with a laugh.

Sini, who has tested positive for coronavirus and is working from home in self-quarantine, said Suffolk was able to get its proceedings fully digital in just 48 hours, working with the courts and defense attorneys. Initially, Sini said he immediately diverted 84.3% of his 400-person staff to work from home. Now all employees are working from home. Employees have to get permission to go to the office and all visits are logged. The office also equipped all its workers with laptops and provided video conference training, he said.

The new system has afforded some light moments. 

"You’ll be talking about a serious investigation and some kid will pop up behind an employee," said Sini. "In some ways this is a more intimate experience than being in the office because you get to see people's homes. Yesterday I was Zooming with [Vehicular Crimes Bureau Chief] Brendan Ahern and all of a sudden his kid popped up behind him and scared the daylights out of me."

Sini said some of the tweaks made to the system as a result of coronavirus could become permanent. 

"What's interesting is we’re finding efficiencies that I think will carry over past the pandemic," Sini said. "We’ve found efficiencies, where it relates to how we serve paperwork, how we make applications. There’s a lot of rules that have been in place for a long time in the courtroom and the legal system that aren’t models of efficiency."

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