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Pandemic opened courts to virtual operations, but challenges persist

When the pandemic hit it changed the way

When the pandemic hit it changed the way court systems operated across Long Island, moving to online platforms and pushing back hearings. Now a year later, courts are trying to catch up on the backlog. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

When the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, Long Island's courts had to adapt to virtual operations without warning.

Suddenly, judges made rulings via videoconference on laptops state officials shipped to their homes. Newly arrested defendants put in not-guilty pleas from digital hookups at police headquarters.

Local attorneys began arguing cases remotely, many from hastily arranged office space in locations like a teenage son's bedroom, a basement or even a garage. Court clerks manned the helm, coordinating on-the-record proceedings from near-empty courtrooms by connecting case participants through virtual links.

More than a year later, many of Long Island's court officials indicated in answers to a Newsday survey that embracing videoconference technology was key to keeping the legal system running after most New York courthouses closed in mid-March 2020 to prevent coronavirus spread.

But some of the region's top legal officials also agreed challenges remain that can significantly affect the criminal justice system going forward as jury duty starts, along with more in-person trials.

'Innovate and adapt'

Technology became "the key to being able to retool how we functioned," Suffolk Administrative Judge Andrew Crecca said of operations in the last year.

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Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini recalled how 320 staffers in his office transitioned to a remote working model in less than 48 hours.

"We may have been building the plane mid-air, but we kept it flying," he said.

The same scramble happened in Nassau.

The pandemic forced courts "to innovate and adapt" to stay operational, with the use of virtual video conferencing taking "center stage," said Nassau Administrative Judge Norman St. George.

Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said her office’s technology staff "proved as capable as any Silicon Valley team" while springing into action to get remote operations up and running for prosecutors.

Overall, the ability of the court to now operate virtually "is a major positive outcome" of the pandemic, Nassau Supervising Judge Teresa Corrigan said.

"When I look back at how the court functioned over the past year, I am most proud of the judges and staff with whom I work for adapting to a new normal without complaint," she added.

'Balancing act'

But court officials faced "a difficult balancing act" trying to ensure the safety of employees and the public while protecting the rights of the accused, according to Criminal Courts Bar Association of Nassau County President Karen Johnston.

"Luckily, the bail reform that was passed and implemented in January 2020 limited the amount of defendants in jail awaiting trial, while presumed innocent. However, there are still people unable to afford bail, sitting in jail," she added.

Those jailed during the trial delays the pandemic sparked also had to worry about the risk of contracting COVID-19 behind bars, said Legal Aid Society of Nassau County attorney-in-chief N. Scott Banks.

At the same time, those defendants were "denied basic constitutional rights to counsel and speedy trial" while also cut off from physical contact with family amid visiting stoppages at correctional facilities, he added.

Defendants taking part in drug court and mental health court programs also struggled with maintaining stability during a decrease in critical treatment services and in-court appearances, according to Suffolk Bar Association president Derrick J. Robinson.

"The increasing number of deaths resulting from limited treatment services and drug overdoses is a significant concern," added Robinson, who became a state Supreme Court judge in January after serving in Suffolk District Court.

Teams of officials who provide treatment stepped up efforts for participants who needed it, according to Robinson. But he said in-person counseling sessions became call-in appointments or virtual sessions, what he described as "a poor substitute."

The pandemic also spurred "bad actors" to take advantage of the health crisis, according to Suffolk’s district attorney.

Sini said a Manhattan couple faces multiple felony charges after the husband and wife allegedly faked two positive COVID-19 test results for her, including on the eve of what were supposed to be closing arguments in his September drug-related trial. It preceded another shutdown of most in-person proceedings.

A jury convicted the husband of narcotics offenses, but not until after a 7-week delay as the couple went to out-of-state locations that included casinos instead of quarantining, according to Sini.

But others stepped up during the pandemic, with Nassau’s top judge recalling a "robust response" to summonses that went out to potential panelists for grand jury and then trials before the infection spike in late 2020 that led officials to again halt the selection of new jurors.

Despite the virus threat, residents had "clearly recognized the importance" of jury duty and trusted court personnel "to help keep them safe in the pandemic," St. George said.

'True test' to come

Some stakeholders urged caution before continuing to use technological advances from the pandemic that prodded the court system into the digital age.

Corrigan said state lawmakers "must update current legislation to ensure courts, including those in Nassau County, have the ability to proceed in a virtual setting once the governor’s executive order providing for same is lifted."

Officials also said it’s necessary to recognize technology has limits, with Banks calling for virtual arraignments to be called off after the pandemic ends for reasons he said include depriving defendants of effective legal advice.

The Legal Aid chief said "much, if not all, critical communication" between a defendant and his or her lawyer "is lost during a virtual proceeding."

But stakeholders agreed virtual operations could be advantageous for some types of court proceedings in the future, including by sometimes allowing defendants to appear electronically so they don’t have to miss school or work.

"I hope many of these sensible changes stay with us for the long term as they improve efficiency, cut costs, and reduce the collateral consequences of justice involvement," said Singas.

Nassau’s district attorney said the "true test of the pandemic is in front of us," as officials now must resolve the backlog of cases that built up as court operations slowed down.

As an example, Singas said her District Court staff cleared nearly 11,000 misdemeanor cases in the summer of 2019, but only 400 in the summer of 2020.

"The backlog is unparalleled to anything this office has encountered before. We have been and will be thinking well outside of the box to ascend out of this pandemic without sacrificing cases or public safety," she added.

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