New York City Criminal Court
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|New York State Unified Court System|
The Criminal Court hears misdemeanors and some traffic infractions. Criminal Court also arraigns persons accused of felonies. Felony charges are ultimately heard in New York State Supreme Court. Traffic violations in New York City are handled in the Traffic Violations Bureau, which operates under the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.
Most people who are arrested and prosecuted in New York City will appear before a Criminal Court judge for arraignment. They may share a holding cell behind the courtroom. In New York state, the time from arrest to arraignment in Criminal Court must be within 24 hours.
Hours of hearings
Given the volume of arrests in New York City, Criminal Court arraignments are held day and night, seven days a week, 365 days a year, from 9:00 AM to 1:00 AM.
At the arraignment, the primary issue is whether or not the Court will decide that bail is required. If the Court does not set bail, the accused is released on his own recognizance. If the judge decides that the accused cannot be trusted to return to court without some encouragement, the judge may set bail.
The decisions to set bail and the amount of bail to set are discretionary, and depend on three factors: 1) prior criminal history, 2) the seriousness of the felony, and 3) community ties of the accused.
Every person who is arrested is entitled to be read the accusations against him or her formally. However, this is a rare event - tradition in New York City is that a copy of the charges be provided at arraignment to the defense lawyer, who is expected to waive the formal public reading. Generally, the defense enters a plea of not guilty.
The two sides
Next, the prosecutor provides defense counsel with certain "notices" that are required by law. Although these notices vary depending on the type of case and facts presented, they generally relate to notifying the defense about certain types of evidence in the Government's possession. For example, one type of notice frequently presented at arraignment notifies the defense that the Government has a statement from the defendant. At the arraignment, the notices are rattled off in quick succession and identified by Criminal Procedure Law references. Once all the notices are handed to the defense, the judge usually asks to hear the Government's position on bail. Usually, the prosecutor will request bail and briefly outline the basis for the request. The defense lawyer is then afforded an opportunity to speak, and will usually seek the defendant's release from custody. Finally, after hearing from both sides, the judge decides on bail.
After arraignment, the misdemeanors, violations and other various low-level infractions are tracked to "All Purpose Parts", or courtrooms where the cases will be negotiated, resolved, or readied for trial. Once certain procedural requirements are met, the defense will frequently request the opportunity to file pretrial motions, through which they will request certain pretrial hearings, if required. Typically, there are three classic types of pretrial hearings, all of which relate to testing the admissibility of different kinds of evidence which the Government intends to use at trial. Specifically, the three classic pretrial hearings challenge the admissibility of: 1) identification evidence (like a lineup); 2) confessions; and 3) physical evidence, obtained either from the accused, or from a place where the accused has an expectation of privacy. Once pretrial hearings are completed, the case is considered ready for trial and will usually be transferred to a courtroom that specializes in handling trials.
New York City Criminal Court is also responsible for handling felony accusations beyond the arraignment. In New York, the Government is required to seek and obtain an indictment in order to prosecute a felony case to its conclusion at a trial. Issued by a Grand Jury, an indictment is permission for the Government to prosecute an individual for a felony (or sometimes a misdemeanor).
While the burden on the Government required to obtain the Grand Jury indictment is extremely low, the Grand Jury process is time-consuming. It has fallen to New York City Criminal Court, then, to be responsible for unindicted felony cases. Such cases are adjourned from arraignments to various Criminal Court courtrooms to monitor their progress toward indictment.
Once an indictment is issued, the case is transferred to New York State Supreme Court, where it will be tried.
Judges of the Criminal Court are appointed by the Mayor of New York City to a 10-year term. Several Criminal Court Judges are designated as Acting Justices of the New York State Supreme Court. In addition, Judges of the New York City Civil Court are designated to sit in the Criminal Court.
Analysis and criticism
The Court of Appeals ruled in 1991 that most people arrested must be released if they are not arraigned within 24 hours. In 2013, for the first time since 2001, the average time it took to arraign defendants fell below 24 hours in all five boroughs.
But there have been accusations of systematic trial delays, especially with regards to the New York City stop-and-frisk program. The Bronx criminal courts were responsible for more than half of the cases in New York City’s criminal courts that were over two years old, and for two-thirds of the defendants waiting for their trials in jail for more than five years. Out of more than 11,000 misdemeanor cases pending in 2012 in the Bronx, there were 300 misdemeanor trials.
New York City's use of remand (pre-trial detention) has also been criticized. The New York City Criminal Justice Agency has stated that only 44 percent of defendants offered bail are released before their case concludes. A report by Human Rights Watch found that among defendants arrested in New York City in 2008 on nonfelony charges who had bail set at $1,000 or less, 87 percent were jailed because they were unable to post the bail amount at their arraignment, and that 39 percent of the city's jail population consists of pre-trial detainees who are in jail because they have not posted bail. A report by the Vera Institute of Justice concluded that, in Manhattan, black and latino defendants were more likely to be held in jail before trial and more likely to be offered plea bargains that include a prison sentence than whites and Asians charged with the same crimes.
- Sullivan, Ronald (27 April 1990). "Judge Orders Arraignments In 24 Hours". The New York Times.
- Sack, Kevin (27 March 1991). "Ruling Forces New York to Release Or Arraign Suspects in 24 Hours". The New York Times.
- McKinley Jr., James C. (19 March 2014). "New York Courts Cut Time Between Arrest and Arraignment". The New York Times.
- Glaberson, William (15 April 2013). "Courts in Slow Motion, Aided by the Defense". The New York Times. p. A1.
- Glaberson, William (16 April 2013). "For 3 Years After Killing, Evidence Fades as a Suspect Sits in Jail". The New York Times. p. A1.
- Glaberson, William (1 May 2013). "Even for Minor Crimes in Bronx, No Guarantee of Getting a Trial". The New York Times. p. A1.
- Glaberson, William (14 April 2013). "Waiting Years for Day in Court". The New York Times. p. A1.
- Buettner, Russ (5 February 2013). "Top Judge Says Bail in New York Isn't Safe or Fair". The New York Times.
- "New York City: Bail Penalizes the Poor: Thousands Accused of Minor Crimes Spend Time in Pretrial Detention". Human Rights Watch. 3 December 2010.
- Fellner, Jamie (2010). The Price of Freedom: Bail and Pretrial Detention of Low Income Nonfelony Defendants in New York City. Human Rights Watch. ISBN 1-56432-718-3.
- McKinley Jr., James C. (8 July 2014). "Study Finds Racial Disparity in Criminal Prosecutions". The New York Times.