The number of court cases dismissed in New York because prosecutors failed to meet “speedy trial” deadlines has boomed — doubling from 2021 to 2022, according to state statistics.
The rise coincides with a change in state law that compels district attorneys to turn over evidence to defense lawyers more quickly in criminal proceedings. Prosecutors failing to meet the new deadlines can trigger cases being dropped by district attorneys or dismissed by judges.
But there also are other factors for the increase, lawyers said, including courts catching up from a pandemic backlog and short staffing in some prosecutors’ offices that leaves them struggling to keep up with the flow of cases and deadlines.
Defense attorneys said it’s also partly a reflection that prosecutors can no longer stall cases for long periods to pressure a defendant to take a plea.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The number of court cases dismissed in New York because prosecutors failed to meet “speedy-trial” deadlines doubled from 2021 to 2022.
- The rise coincides with a change in state law that compels district attorneys to turn over evidence to defense lawyers more quickly in criminal proceedings.
- But there also are other factors for the increase, lawyers say, including courts catching up from a pandemic backlog and short-staffing in many prosecutors’ offices.
The Office of Court Administration data show the overwhelming bulk of dismissals deal with low-level misdemeanors and violations, not felonies. Further, attorneys on either side say the data doesn’t go into granular detail about why dismissals occur — a witness could change his mind or not be available, for example.
That said, the data showed:
- Across New York state, the number of speedy trial dismissals increased from 15,863 to 31,321 from 2021 to 2022, a 97% bump, according to OCA statistics.
- New York City accounted for more than 92% of the increase (roughly 14,000 of the 15,000). The city also accounts for nearly 90% of all dismissals.
- Long Island saw big increases on a percentage basis. Suffolk County jumped from 507 in 2021 to 976 in 2022 — a 92% spike. Nassau County jumped from 753 to 1,064, a 41% increase.
- It’s not happening in every county or even every big county. Erie County had a decrease in dismissals, from 66 in 2021 to 21 in 2022. Monroe County (Rochester) went from 1,489 to 1,313. Some counties reported very few dismissals, such as Onondaga (Syracuse) with just five.
- Defense attorneys said anecdotal evidence suggests the 2023 rate might show a decline in dismissals. Prosecutors said if that’s so, it’s because state lawmakers gave them more money to hire and retain staff to meet the discovery deadlines.
State law sets speedy-trial deadlines for how soon a prosecutor must be ready for trial; for example, 90 days for higher-level misdemeanors.
Before 2019, prosecutors could basically wait until the eve of trial to turn over evidence to the defense. A defendant — who might be in jail — could be pressured for months to make a deal without fully knowing the evidence against him, defense attorneys often contended.
The State Legislature and then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo changed the evidence law in 2019 to say that all discoverable materials must be turned over to the defense within 20 days of arraignment when a defendant is jailed and 35 days otherwise, though there are paths for bargaining over the time requirements.
The law became effective in 2020, just as the pandemic hit, and all but shut down court proceedings for a long stretch. As courts returned to action, dismissals increased slightly in 2021 and boomed in 2022.
“There are clearly more dismissals that are going on in our courts,” said John Flynn, the Erie County District Attorney and head of the state District Attorneys Association. “DAs are going to court now and dismissing cases they wouldn’t have pre-discovery law changes — especially the low-level, nonviolent cases. These are cases that are on the back burner because we have more important cases we’re dealing with.”
He added that occasionally prosecutors move to dismiss cases “in the interest of justice,” which could mean the case fell apart or it was apparent speedy trial deadlines wouldn’t be met — although such instances aren’t recorded as speedy-trial dismissals.
“I went into Buffalo City Court one day and dismissed 200 cases in one day,” Flynn said.
He also said some county prosecutors’ offices have become seriously understaffed — though that’s a national problem not related to discovery law changes. Still, it means fewer and younger assistant prosecutors are handling large caseloads with low-level charges and tight deadlines.
In Nassau, new assistant prosecutors average 150 ongoing cases, said Dana Grossblatt, a bureau chief who oversees most misdemeanor cases for the district attorney’s office.
The evidence requirements mandated by the new discovery law mean that assistant prosecutors spend lots of time “collecting paperwork” before ever diving into the actual investigation, Grossblatt said. Then, deadlines — the applications of which can vary by judge — come into play.
“The timeline is impractical … and, unfortunately, cases are being dismissed,” Grossblatt said.
A former defense lawyer, Grossblatt agrees with the premise of the discovery law changes. But, like Flynn, she said the new deadlines are extreme and should be amended.
The defense bar sees the numbers differently.
“The law is doing what it was intended to do,” said Laurette Mulry, the attorney-in-charge at the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County, which provides services to those who can’t afford it.
“The reforms were overdue because the system was unfair,” Mulry said, contending that previously too many people under pressure took wrongful convictions. “Now, we’re able to get the information earlier, analyze the information better and work with our clients and inform them better.”
She added: “And where the case isn’t supported by the evidence and the prosecution can’t bear its burden, the case goes away. You see that in the level of crimes — you’re seeing misdemeanors dismissed, not the felonies.”
Further, just because a case was dismissed on speedy-trial grounds doesn’t mean it was because of discovery issues, said Susan Bryant, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association.
Sometimes “it becomes apparent that the prosecutor doesn’t have a complaining witness or there is another reason why the case never should have been prosecuted,” Bryant wrote in an email. “A dashboard of data will not capture the granular details and analysis needed to evaluate what is happening and why.”
That some counties reported very few dismissals raises questions about whether data is being tracked uniformly or in the same way prior to 2020, she added.
Anecdotally, speedy-trial dismissals seem to be declining in 2023, said N. Scott Banks, attorney-in-charge at Legal Aid’s Nassau County bureau.
That could be for a variety of factors, including prosecutors adjusting to the deadlines or adjusting their plea-bargain approaches to get time waivers.
“So while we saw a spike in 2022, I think now we’re going to see less and less in terms of speedy-trial motions made and granted” in 2023, Banks said.
Further, after years’ of complaints by district attorneys, Gov. Kathy Hochul and the State Legislature in May approved $170 million to help prosecutors and defenders hire more staff to comply with discovery laws. That’s in addition to a $100 million increase in general funding for prosecutors and defenders.
“I think the money will make a big difference and a difference in this data,” Mulry said. “I think when we have this conversation a year from now, it will be different.”