Bronx Speedy-Trial Defense|Likened to Segregation Excuses

     MANHATTAN (CN) — New York State’s lawyers have argued that the federal judiciary has no authority to order Bronx Criminal Court to address the years of backlogs that have gutted speedy-trial rights there.
     But a federal judge pointed out at hearing Wednesday that attorneys advocating for Jim Crow laws in Mississippi and Alabama may have used that same argument to try to defeat legal challenges to segregation.
     “We are not arguing about segregation in the South, but if we were, [the state] would be making the same arguments that you are making,” U.S. District Judge George Daniels said. “Oh, comity, that’s for us to decide. The federal courts, you should defer to us.”
     The veteran jurist made several similar analogies during arguments that stretched more than 90 minutes.
     Daniels, who is black, spent several years as a criminal court judge and a defense attorney before his 16-year stint on the federal bench. He is now presiding over a proposed civil-rights class action claiming that tens of thousands of people languish in Bronx jails awaiting trial for misdemeanors.
     The Bronx Defenders, the nonprofit group behind the lawsuit, says that the average wait for a bench trial in that borough’s criminal court is 642 days and a jury trial takes an “astonishing” 827 days.
     As of this past January, the group said 2,378 misdemeanor cases remained pending in the Bronx for more than 365 days and 538 cases for at least two years.
     Four black and Latino men sued New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, and Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks in May, seeking a federal court order to curb the delays.
     In her first attempt to throw out the lawsuit, New York Assistant Attorney General Alissa Wright blasted the lawsuit as a “broad, widespread challenge to the criminal justice system in the Bronx.” She added that the plaintiffs provided “no precedent for such intrusive and invasive oversight.”
     But Daniels kept returning to precedents that predate the victories of the Civil Rights movement.
     “Suppose we were transported someplace else,” the judge mused, and what appeared to be the setup for a fairly typical Socratic exercise in a courtroom soon took on a more biting edge.
     “Suppose we were transported to Mississippi of the 1930s,” he continued. “[The state argues:] ‘We want to deny this class of people trials.’ You wouldn’t be arguing to me that the federal courts couldn’t do anything about that?”
     Wright asserted that, unlike in the segregation era, New York does not have an official policy of denying Bronx Criminal Court defendants their Sixth Amendment rights.
     Daniels countered that the state’s intentions are irrelevant.
     “The motive of the state is not determinative of the right of the individual,” he said. “The individual has the right to a speedy trial.”
     In any event, the judge noted, the University of Alabama claimed that it had no official policy of discrimination when it was finally forced to desegregate in 1963.
     When pressed by the state about how a federal court could reform Bronx criminal-court backlogs, Daniels found one potential model in a phrase from Brown v. The Board of Education: “With all deliberate speed.”
     The point, he said, was that the federal court would not have to oversee the state judges at all, but mandate that they correct the constitutional violations.
     The black and Latino plaintiffs in this lawsuit are still a long way from such an outcome.
     At this stage, they need to prove that they have standing to sue, requiring them to prove that they are likely to be arrested, prosecuted in the Bronx, and be deprived of the right of a jury trial by the state.
     Daniels grilled civil-rights attorney Scott Levy on whether his plaintiffs fit that bill.
     Lead plaintiff Christopher Trowbridge, a 42-year-old black man from the South Bronx, claims that he is likely to land in Bronx Criminal Court a seventh time because of his longtime struggle with substance abuse.
     “That is not something that goes away overnight,” Levy, with the Bronx Defenders, noted.
     Another plaintiff Juan Ortiz, a 61-year-old Latino man, has been busted 14 times for shoplifting within 2 ½ years.
     Levy argued that Ortiz has a medical compulsion that makes him likely to be face further court delays in the Bronx.
     The judge seemed skeptical that a “kleptomaniac” was the best class representative.
     “It seems to me that [Ortiz is] the least likely person to want a speedy trial,” he quipped.
     Daniels joked that most attorneys attempt to convince him that their clients will not commit crimes in the future, but that Levy’s task is to prove the opposite in order to prove standing.
     For plaintiff Michael Torres, a 43-year-old construction worker, the problem is not a likelihood of recidivism, but a repeated mistake by the police. Torres carries a pocket knife in New York City, where the NYPD has enforced a highly-publicized crackdown on so-called gravity knives.
     Critics say this policy relies on a vague and discriminatory definition of what is banned. Over the past decade, 86 percent of the thousands of New Yorkers arrested under the statute have been black or Latino.
     Daniels promised to quickly review the extensive court record before issuing a ruling.
     Though an unstated subtext of the hearing, the rampant civil-rights violations being claimed are happening in New York City’s most diverse county.
     The Bronx is unique among the five boroughs for having a Hispanic majority. More than 40 percent of its residents are black, and it has the lowest white population of any of the five boroughs.

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