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ALBANY — District Attorney David Soares is asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to issue and executive order to waive speedy trial rights in light of the impossibility of holding Grand Jury panels and abide by Center for Disease Control guidelines of cancelling all events with 10 or more people.
“In New York, Grand Juries are comprised of 23 people, and in Albany County, three separate Grand Juries come to the courthouse once a week to hear cases presentations and vote on them,” Soares said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the tightly-packed Grand Jury room at the Judicial Center does not allow for the social distancing measures recommended by health professionals at this time.”
He said there is precedent to such an order, pointing to the suspension of speedy trial requirements by Gov. George Pataki following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He said the situation today certainly falls under the “exceptional circumstances” that allows the governor to issue such and order and the fact he has already issued executive orders in stopping the spread of COVID-19, which the World Health Organization has categorized a pandemic.
The rights of a speedy trial are granted under the sixth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In New York, basically, the prosecutor must be ready for trial with six months for felonies that carry a punishment of more than a year in jail. For class A misdemeanors, crimes punishable to up to a year in jail, the threshold is 90 days and for class B felonies, those punishable by up to 90 days, the prosecutor must be ready within 60 days. Violations, which carry a punishment of up to 15 days in jail, the speedy trial requirement is 30 days.
If a prosecutor violates the speedy trial requirements, the case could be dismissed by a judge.
While speedy trial changes were made as part of the controversial bail reform, it did not adjust the timelines mentioned above and Soares made no mention of it in his statement. Rather, he is worried about criminal cases being dismissed if the current restrictions prevent his office from empaneling Grand Juries.
“For obvious reasons, Grand Jury presentations as required by law cannot safely occur at this time,” Soares said in a statement. “But state “speedy trial” rules embodied in Criminal Procedure Law mean that any delay in presenting cases to a Grand Jury can result in serious cases of assault, rape, murder, and the like being dismissed. This situation is untenable.”