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Some Long Island criminal trials to be held with reopening

Nassau County Court in Mineola can start holding

Nassau County Court in Mineola can start holding some criminal trials on Friday after the COVID-19 pandemic forced widespread court closures. Credit: Newsday / Bridget Murphy

Some criminal trials can be held on Long Island now as the court system enters its next phase of reopening after the COVID-19 pandemic forced widespread closures and a transition to virtual operations.

But the trials can’t involve jailed defendants or juries as state court administrators seek a measured restart to in-person operations to prevent spread of the virus.

If all parties in a criminal case agree to an in-person proceeding such as a bench trial before a judge, a pretrial hearing, a plea or a sentencing, the matter can go forward for out-of-custody defendants, according to court officials.

“We want a slow and safe return to normalcy,” Nassau’s Administrative Judge Norman St. George said during a virtual meeting with the county’s legal community Tuesday.

He and other local supervisory judges detailed changes to operations in criminal proceedings in Phase 3 of reopening, which follows the state’s overall economic reopening plan.

New York’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said in a video message Monday that courts in other areas of the state already have started hearing an expanded number of in-person matters.

“While there has been an increase in courthouse traffic, we have been able to safely manage the flow of people by staggering court calendars and courtroom usage,” she said.

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DiFiore added that safety measures such as social distancing markers and the use of face masks were in place. Hand sanitizer stations and acrylic barriers also are in courts.

“We do recognize that there are many difficult challenges ahead of us, especially with regard to our high-volume courthouses in New York City and other populous areas of the state,” the chief judge said.

DiFiore called the health crisis “an impetus for positive innovation” and said officials are looking at ways going forward to embrace technology now in use.

Nassau Supervising Judge Teresa Corrigan said during Tuesday’s virtual meeting that as in-person court operations pick up, “it is still the hope that we utilize the virtual capacity that County Court has set up for as many matters as we can handle.”

For now, all criminal arraignments and felony hearings will continue being held virtually through Skype videoconferences with no jail inmates in court, St. George said.

All Phase 3 developments will be the same in Nassau and Suffolk counties, state court spokesman Lucian Chalfen said Wednesday.

Court officials also will begin to send out summonses to potential grand jurors, with a plan to start grand jury proceedings July 13, according to St. George.

He said there had been no decision yet about when jury trials would resume, but expected DiFiore to make such a determination based on events in the next four to six weeks.

Members of the public will have to bring and wear a mask to come inside any local courthouse, and for now, temperature checks won’t be performed at the entrances, Nassau’s administrative judge also said.

In Nassau County Court, judges have been divided into teams, with each group available for in-person operations at the Mineola court during certain weeks, according to Corrigan.

Nassau District Court Supervising Judge Elizabeth Fox-McDonough said the biggest change at the Hempstead facility would be that defendants with desk appearance tickets will have to start appearing for arraignments — a limited amount of people each day — starting in less than two weeks.

“We will try our best to make sure everyone’s concerns are satisfied,” St. George said as Tuesday’s meeting ended.

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