All Courts Opening On Limited Basis

T. E. McMorrow
East Hampton Town Justice Court has undergone a thorough cleaning after an employee, who was asymptomatic, tested positive for COVID-19.

Local courthouses across Suffolk County opened on a very limited basis, starting Friday morning, May 29. According to one local attorney, Brian DeSesa of the Adam Miller Group, the new normal may become the permanent normal.

Lisa Rana, senior justice in terms served in East Hampton, and the village justice for Sag Harbor, said Friday there will be no actual court proceedings, but that “people can now file small claims in civil court.” She said court dates will not be calendared yet.

People who want to plead guilty to a parking ticket can do so at the clerk’s window, and immediately pay the fine.

If you have been charged with a moving violation, you can enter the courthouse in the jurisdiction the citation was written up in and enter a guilty plea, but you will not be able to pay the fine. Fines or penalties for violations will have to be assessed at a later date, Rana said.

Anyone entering a courthouse will have to wear a face mask, according to a press release sent out Thursday from the office of state Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks.

All staff members who interact with the public will be wearing masks as well. The halls of the courthouses across the state will be carefully marked to ensure social distancing.

Courthouses across the state will be regularly sanitized, and safety equipment, such as hand sanitizer dispensers and acrylic barriers, where needed, will be installed.

The full staff will be on-hand in the clerk’s office at East Hampton Town Justice Court, as it is spacious and allows for social distancing.

The same cannot be said for the clerk’s office in Sag Harbor. Part of the waiting room next to the courtroom in the Municipal Building on Main Street is being isolated and converted into an office, to allow for the court’s two clerks to maintain social distancing from each other.

Looking down the road, Rana foresees a very different type of court calendar, with far fewer cases during any one session, to allow for social distancing. One possible alternative would be to allow more court proceedings be done via teleconference. Currently, all arraignments on criminal charges of defendants being held on criminal matters are conducted in such a manner.

According to DeSesa, the alternative possibility of doing more court business remotely makes sense as a permanent solution. “Almost everything can be handled remotely, in my opinion,” he said Sunday.

For example, one of DeSesa’s clients, Abraham Romero-Gonzalez, had pleaded guilty on March 6, just before the court system was shut down, to a felony charge of conspiracy to distribute drugs. DeSesa already had a deal in place with the district attorney’s office, which had New York State Justice Fernando Camacho’s blessing. Romero-Gonzalez, who was arrested by Suffolk County police on New Year’s Day in 2018 as part of a roundup of alleged MS-13 gang members, wasto be sentenced to six months in county jail under the plea deal. He would be released after serving four months with good behavior behind bars.

Romero-Gonzalez agreed to start serving that time immediately, without waiting for the actual sentencing date. That sentencing date was June 1.

There was no need for an in-person court appearance for what was a formality, DeSesa said. The proceeding was done remotely. Romero-Gonzalez is scheduled to be released this week.

Many court proceedings are, in fact, procedural in nature.

“Other states do everything via video conferencing. New York State should catch up with the times,” DeSesa said. “There is no commute time. There’s no waiting time.”

If a defendant is incarcerated, video conferencing also means the prisoner does not have to be transported.

The one exception, of course, DeSesa said, are trials. Whether it is a jury trial or a bench trial, those will always have to be done in open court, he said.

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