Are Speedy Trials Now Settled In The Bronx? (Spoiler Alert: No)

The New York Times headline was surprisingly encouraging.

Speedy Trials Return to a Bronx Court Known for Delays and Dysfunction

To call it “delays and dysfunction” was to grossly understate the problem, which was revealed as a New York disgrace with the revelations following Kalief Browder’s suicide. In 2016, Bronx Defenders brought suit to deal with the problem. The suit was now settled.

The settlement of the case, Trowbridge et al v. DiFiore, was signed on Thursday afternoon by attorneys from the Bronx Defenders and the New York attorney general’s office. It mandates that the courts produce quarterly reports about how long cases are taking to resolve and establishes a formal process to request a speedy trial for defendants whose cases are languishing.

The first part, about quarterly reports, is the sort of thing only a government clerk could love. They adore statistics, which they can point to when deciding whom to give an award for a job well done or throw under the bus for another massive failure. But it’s the second part that was weird and could only make sense to someone wholly unfamiliar with speedy trial in New York.

…establishes a formal process to request a speedy trial for defendants…

There’s law. It’s Section 30.30 of the Criminal Procedure Law. It provides the statutory time constraints, how they’re calculated and the remedy, dismissal, for failure to comply. It doesn’t require a “formal request.” It’s a right possessed by every person accused of a misdemeanor.* There already was a “formal” system. The problem was that district attorneys gamed and circumvented it, and judges willingly let it happen and refused to deal with it.

But the headline read “Speedy trial return,” even if the body of the story (that failed to include a link [or even a quote] to the actual settlement agreement) swaps the promise of the headline for the disappointment of another “formal process.”

What gives? Here’s the actual Speedy Trial Settlement (h/t Keith Kaplan). After the requisite verbiage and prefatory nonsense, it finally comes to the “beef” at paragraphs 18-25, with the cool new name of Trial Request Tracking, reduced as required to “TRT.”

18. TRT Eligibility. Only cases pending in Bronx Criminal Court in which the top
remaining charge is a misdemeanor or violation shall be eligible for designation as TRT Cases.
Such cases will only be eligible for TRT designation (a) upon completion of all omnibus motion
practice, and where there is a representation by the criminal defendant that he or she does not intend to file additional pretrial motions, (b) where there are no pending motions, ( c) once the Bronx District Attorney has stated ready for trial in the matter on at least one occasion, and (d) where the criminal defendant states ready for trial and requests such designation during a calendared court appearance.

And what, praytell, does TRT eligibility do for a case, for a defendant whose case has been gamed beyond the 60 and 90 day time limits for trial set forth in the statute? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

24. No Legal Effect. The designation of a case as a TRT Case shall not confer upon
criminal defendants any additional substantive or procedural legal rights. Conversely,
designation as a TRT Case shall in no way prejudice criminal defendants who request and/or
obtain such designation. Likewise, the failure to request TRT designation or the withdrawal of
TRT designation shall in no way prejudice a criminal defendant. Nothing in this Agreement
shall limit in any way a Bronx Criminal Court judge’s discretion in presiding over and
adjudicating criminal proceedings in any TRT or non-TRT case, including, but not limited to,
scheduling, motion practice, dispositions, granting or denying adjournments, setting trial dates, placing the criminal defendant on “alert,” and/or making accommodations for a criminal defendant’s personal obligations and the availability of witnesses and counsel.

You get to fill out a form to make a case TRT eligible (the settlement is very explicit about the need to make TRT elibility forms available in every courtroom). And then . . . nothing.

What this settlement fails to address is the gaming by the Bronx District Attorney’s office of the time requirements of §30.30 by announcing “ready for trial” at arraignment, even though everyone knows it’s a lie, and thus shifting the dead time caused by court congestion to the defense rather than the prosecution being accountable. It doesn’t stop the gaming by an ADA seeking a one day, or one week, adjournment, knowing that it will buy her at least a month if not more because the next available court date is that far off.

How this system has been played is no mystery to anyone involved. Even the underlying notion of this settlement, that prosecutions of misdemeanor defendants are presumptively not going to trial and not subject to speedy trial such that they now have to make a “formal” request to enjoy a right promised them by the Constitution and statute, or they get to languish for years.

Are advocates patting themselves on the back for this huge success? Hell, they got a New York Times reporter, Ali Winston, to bite on the nonsense. They tend to do that when the narrative aligns with their dreams. Yet, they have managed to accomplish absolutely nothing even if the headline proclaims victory.

Kalief Browder is still dead and the misdemeanor defendants in the Bronx will enjoy a cool new name for their case, which will still take years, if ever, to see a trial.

*This case, oddly, deals only with speedy trial of misdemeanors, despite the fact that Browder was charged with a felony and the same law, and same problem, pervades the system as to both misdemeanors and felonies.

4 thoughts on “Are Speedy Trials Now Settled In The Bronx? (Spoiler Alert: No)

  1. PaulaMarie Susi

    I know. I shouldn’t be shocked. But, shocked. I know, State v. Federal courts. But srsly? Court congestion? That’s a time management problem. And, that’s (part of) my job. The ‘speedy trial clock’ is governed, at least in my courtroom, by the deft. You want more time? You got it. You want a trial on Monday? Done. Even if I’m in the middle of another one, we’ll do half days. If that doesn’t work, we have 25 other judges, one of them will take it (but you may not want that, ya know, sentencing disparity). AUSA whimpering they need more time? Suck it up, you have resources, denied. It’s more than just a docket number.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s game that’s been played forever, and could be stopped at any moment, if judges decided they didn’t want to play anymore. Like the cash bail problem. State court can be another planet.

  2. B. McLeod

    So, basically, the defenders overhauled their tags, lowered their boats, and struck the colors, but like a good French vessel, they fired a few guns first for ceremony.

    1. SHG Post author

      That they failed to succeed doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have tried, but for the Times to proclaim victory is ridiculous.

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