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Nassau, Suffolk officials decry state criminal discovery law

Several Long Island mayors and law enforcement officials

Several Long Island mayors and law enforcement officials protested a new state law on Wednesday that forces prosecutors to speed up the sharing of evidence in criminal cases, saying it will overwhelm the court system and cost taxpayers millions. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Several Long Island mayors and law enforcement officials protested a new state law on Wednesday that forces prosecutors to speed up the sharing of evidence in criminal cases, saying it will overwhelm the court system and cost taxpayers millions.

The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, allows defendants to receive evidence or “discovery” materials within 15 days of being arrested. It also broadens the types of incidents in which discovery is required, officials said.

Discovery is the legal term that describes the process by which evidence is shared between litigants in a court case. The evidence can include police reports, photos, electronic recordings and witness information.

Freeport Mayor Robert T. Kennedy, who is also president of the New York State Conference of Mayors, led the protest in which officials complained that the new law will overwhelm the court system and require localities to hire more employees.

Kennedy said the new state mandates could create a $1 million deficit in his village budget, which would necessitate a 5.7 percent increase in property taxes.

"Failure to analyze and review the financial logistical burdens to the villages before enactment of this legislation will result in a potential train wreck in January of 2020," said Kennedy during a news conference where he was joined by about 20 other officials in Freeport.

"We will have 5,000 additional discoveries based on building codes," Kennedy added. "We will have 30,000 discoveries required for parking tickets in the event somebody pleads not guilty."

Advocates for the law say it will facilitate fairer plea bargains and trial preparation, since defendants will know the evidence against them, and that it matches guidelines in many other states.

They say that current discovery laws do not require prosecutors to share most of the evidence until the moment before a trial begins.

The new discovery law is part of a broader package of criminal justice reforms passed this year by the state. Officials in Nassau and Suffolk counties say they are preparing to spend millions to accommodate the laws.

Suffolk County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. criticized the state for placing extra demands on localities without providing funding.

"This is just an example of yet another overreach on the part of a progressive, left-leaning legislature who really is not acknowledging what the impacts are going to be here to local government," Kennedy said.

Long Beach Police Commissioner Michael Tangney said he worries that the new law will result in less enforcement by police officers.

Starting in January, his police officers will have to hand over all their evidence to the district attorney within 24 hours of an arrest, so as to allow the DA to fulfill the 15-day requirement for sharing discovery materials.

"They're going to spend more time on administrative work," Tangney said.

Peter Baynes, executive director of the New York Conference of Mayors, suggested delaying the implementation of the law until the state can provide additional funding for the localities.

Baynes said that if the new law is allowed to stand, "budgets are going to be busted, tax caps are going to be busted, and property tax payers are going to pay the price for it."

Though Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith wasn't at the protest, she and fellow Town Board members also have concerns that the discovery provision would have serious impacts on their town.

In an interview Wednesday, Jens-Smith said town officials had estimated that it would cost Riverhead up to $500,000 to come into compliance with the new law. Those costs include staff training for police, police overtime, expanding the hours and operation of the town's courts, hiring more staff and purchasing up to $300,000 in software for police.

"It's such a major change in the way that courts and police do business right now," Jens-Smith said. "In a smaller town that has its own police force and its own justice court, it has enormous impact." 

Jens-Smith said that police overtime was very likely to increase, and that several other unknown variables regarding how to implement the law could generate additional costs for Riverhead. 

The board voted 5-0 at its Dec. 17 regular meeting to send a letter to New York State officials asking them to "immediately amend or delay" the law's implementation.

With Jean-Paul Salamanca 

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