Court delays in the Bronx have defendants waiting years, suit claims

Tanzina Vega, CNN | 5/10/2016, 11:26 a.m.
Residents of the New York City borough of the Bronx who have been arrested for a misdemeanor charge are waiting ...
Bronx County Hall of Justice Wikipedia

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Residents of the New York City borough of the Bronx who have been arrested for a misdemeanor charge are waiting months or even years for their cases to be resolved.

Attorneys in the Bronx say that the amount of time their clients have to wait between a misdemeanor arrest and a hearing can be so long that it violates their constitutional right to a speedy trial.

On Tuesday, several of these attorneys filed a class action lawsuit alleging court delays at the New York City Criminal Court in the Bronx "have fatally undermined the right to trial" for people charged with low-level offenses like marijuana possession or jumping a subway turnstile.

According to the suit, at the beginning of this year 2,378 misdemeanor cases had been pending for more than a year and 538 had been pending for more than two years. On average, defendants can wait 642 days for a non-jury trial and 827 days for a jury trial in the Bronx, the complaint alleges. Each week, an average of 800 new misdemeanor cases come into the court, yet less than two get to trial.

Defendants listed in the lawsuit include Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York who is responsible for enforcing the constitution and two court administrators who are in charge of allocating resources, including personnel, to the courts.

Rich Azzopardi, a representative for the governor's office, said they were reviewing the complaint and a spokesperson for the Unified Court System wasn't immediately available for comment.

Attorneys say the delays also have a disproportionate racial and economic impact on the borough's residents, many of whom are poor or working class and black or Latino. "Your right to a speedy trial should not depend on your zip code and right now it does," said Ilann Maazel and attorney with Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, a law firm representing plaintiffs in the class.

Attorneys say the delays in the Bronx -- the poorest county in the state -- are worse than anywhere else in New York City.

Part of the problem, said Scott Levy, an attorney with the Bronx Defenders, a non-profit public defender and one of the organizations representing plaintiffs in the case, is a lack of resources in the borough's courts. Often, he said, there aren't enough judges to hear the many cases coming through. "Lots of times the doors are locked, other times the judge is sitting there without a court reporter," Levy said.

Defendants often show up for court only to have their case adjourned and must return to court another day, Levy said. "You have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who are essentially trapped in these courts."

According to the lawsuit: "The months often turn into years. People's lives are put on hold as their fate hangs in the balance. The process can feel interminable."

That's what happened to 43 year-old Michael Torres, a construction worker who was arrested and charged with possession of less than one gram of marijuana in 2011 while he was on his way to a job interview. From 2011 to 2014, Torres had 14 scheduled court dates. According to the lawsuit many were adjourned at the request of the prosecution who said they were unprepared. More than two years after Torres was arraigned, his case was dismissed because the police officer that arrested him said he could not recall what led to Torres' arrest.