MANHATTAN (CN) — Tens of thousands of people languish in Bronx jails awaiting trial for misdemeanors, making the constitutional right to a speedy trial “illusory,” four New Yorkers claim in a federal class action.
Lead plaintiff Christopher Trowbridge, a 42-year-old black man from the South Bronx, sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the chief judge and administrator of the state’s judicial system.
Trowbridge says his struggle with heroin addiction led him to several brushes with the system, as well as detox and rehabilitation facilities. He has been prosecuted six times in Bronx Criminal Court since 2008.
The Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit whose attorneys represent Trowbridge and others, says the borough’s backlog of cases “makes it virtually impossible” to receive a timely trial.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” the 37-page complaint begins. “The constitutional right to a trial — a speedy and public trial — is the foundation of our adversarial criminal justice system. The right to challenge the state’s evidence and confront witnesses in a meaningful and timely manner gives legal and moral legitimacy to the system as a whole. For people accused of misdemeanors in the Bronx, however, this right is illusory.”
At the end of 2015, there were 12,445 misdemeanor cases pending in the Bronx, according to the lawsuit.
The previous year, the Bronx had significantly fewer misdemeanor arraignments than Manhattan, Brooklyn or Queens, but its backlog was far higher, the complaint states.
Michael Torres, a 43-year-old father of two, said he had to appear in court 14 times for a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge. He said the court adjourned his case 877 days after his arraignment, but he lost his job after too many absences.
“After waiting all that time, I wasn’t even able to have my day in court,” Torres said in a statement. “I did everything I was supposed to do, but the system failed me — I joined this case because I want to ensure this doesn’t happen to others.”
State standards require that 90 percent of misdemeanor cases be disposed within 90 days, but the average age of misdemeanor cases pending in the Bronx last year was 219 days, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit comes a little more than a year after then-Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to address the delays to shrink the population of Rikers Island, which is under court supervision to reform what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called a “Lord of the Flies” climate.
The plaintiffs seek class certification and “appropriate relief” for constitutional violations.
They are represented by Scott Levy with the Bronx Defenders and Matthew Brinckerhoff with Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady.
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