Virus prompts changes in court proceedings

County and state court proceedings entered unchartered territory Tuesday, consolidating operations in downtown Buffalo and handling only arraignments of jailed defendants via video conference.

The changes were implemented after a statewide memorandum ordered the cessation of non-essential functions, effective 5 p.m. Monday. 

“It is hectic,” Andrew Isenberg, the Eighth Judicial District Executive, who oversees all regional court matters, told Investigative Post in an email. 

“Our entire society has been turned upside down and that now includes our criminal justice system and, frankly, our entire court system,” said Erie County District Attorney John Flynn. 

In Erie County, all arraignments are happening via video conference calls that link defendants in City Court and judges and prosecuting and defense attorneys in the county court building at 25 Delaware Ave. The separation is part of the social distancing being encouraged by authorities.

In the past, defense attorneys have opposed video conferencing for arraignments, saying they need  time to discuss matters off-the-record with clients. Given the circumstances, those arguments are not being made right now.    

“These are obviously extraordinary times,” said Kevin Stadelmaier, chief attorney of Buffalo Legal Aid’s Criminal Defense Unit. “It’s an unprecedented event, so we’re taking precautions we can take. This one is a prudent one at this point. And I know, even though I don’t like it very much, I am not in the position to argue about it.”

Stadelmaier and another attorney are handling all cases for Legal Aid, whose criminal defense unit represents low-income defendants with cases in Buffalo City Court. All other Legal Aid Bureau attorneys have been furloughed with pay until City Court reopens at an undetermined date. Flynn created a rotating duty calendar for assistant district attorneys, with four scheduled daily. 

“We’re going to limit the number of people to a doable number so we’re not putting anyone at risk,” Flynn told Investigative Post. 

The court experienced some confusion Tuesday morning, according to Stadelmaier. At issue was whether defendants not in custody were required to appear in court for arraignment. Some judges told those defendants they were required to show up, but dockets were limited to those in custody.

Flynn said he has encouraged law enforcement departments to issue appearance tickets for less serious, nonviolent offenses and require defendants to return to court for an arraignment in 30 to 45 days, as opposed to two to five, which is more common. 

Hearings on felony charges are required within five days of arraignment, but while courts are closed, judges are granting “good cause” adjournments, delaying that process. 

Stadelmaier said speedy trial and discovery times will likely be tolled, meaning allowed to be legally postponed. 

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Both defense and prosecution attorneys said people are doing their best to keep a reasonable distance during proceedings. Flynn and Stadelmaier estimate that on any given day, a few hundred to upwards of a thousand people move in and out of Buffalo City Court. That includes, what Flynn said, is an average of about 30 new arrests daily for arraignment in City Court.

“The chance of someone walking into court with coronavirus is nearly 100 percent,” Stadelmaier said. “Somebody was going to bring it in. Closing down the courts now, limiting traffic, limiting opportunities for people to be exposed, this was a prudent move by the court administration across the state.” 

All attorneys, judges and court staff members have been told to expect the court system to operate like this for at least the next two weeks. The last time courts closed for a prolonged period came after 9/11. Statewide, courts closed for a day; in Manhattan, they closed until Sept. 17. 

“This is a rapidly evolving and unprecedented situation,” Lucian Chalfen, the Office of Court Administration’s communications director, wrote in an email. “At this point, it is too early to tell when court operations will return to normal.”