New York Law Journal: Panel Addresses Problems With Overwhelmed Summons Courts

In response to the New York City Police Department’s change in approach to low-level marijuana possession offenses, defense attorneys who have worked in the Summons Courts warned that the system is already strained enough.

During a New York City Council hearing on Monday, attorneys in several legal service organizations discussed multiple flaws in the summons process, including enforcement that seemed to disproportionately affect minority communities, summons forms lacking basic information, and attorneys with too little time to review cases, despite the collateral consequences that could attach to a guilty plea.

Alison Wilkey, director of policy and legal services at Youth Represent, said it was common for defendants not to know the charges against them and for judicial hearing officers to play both the “fact-finder and the prosecutor” in proceedings that last only a matter of minutes.

Jeremy Kaplan-Lyman, an attorney with the Bronx Defenders, said while defendants could face an arrest warrant for a missed appearance, in his experience it has been “extraordinarily difficult” to reschedule appearances. Moreover, he said systems to notify individuals about upcoming court dates did not work.

Wilkey, Kaplan-Lyman and others suggested better oversight of judicial hearing officers and a grace period before arrest warrants for non-appearances.

In a statement read into the record during the hearing, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson said summonses could “ensnare individuals in the criminal justice system and burden them with direct and collateral consequences in a way that is disproportionate to the petty offenses that these individuals are accused of having committed.”

He said the “assembly-line justice on display in most of the summons court parts” only worsened the problem. Ideally, he said, there would be more community courts throughout the city like the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

The concerns about handling summonses came at a hearing held jointly by the City Council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services and its Public Safety Committee about a month after the New York City Police Department implemented a new policy on low-level marijuana offense enforcement.

Under the new rules, eligible individuals found with less than 25 grams of unburnt marijuana in public view would get a summons for a violation instead of being arrested for a misdemeanor (NYLJ, Nov. 17).

Last year, there were 458,095 summons issued for all offenses, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. The figure is a sharp drop from a total of 577,664 summons issued in 2010.

Currently, nine full-time attorneys and one half-time attorney serve as appointed counsel under Article 18-B of the state’s County Law assigned to summons courts for all five boroughs.

During the hearing, Elizabeth Glazer, director of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice, responded to a question from Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, public safety committee chair, about the courts’ ability to take on an influx of marijuana summonses. “I think we all share your concern that we not further flood the Summons Court,” Glazer said.
As far as how many more summons were coming into the parts, “We’ll watch carefully,” Glazer said. “It’s a little too soon to tell.”

Acting Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Melissa Jackson, administrative judge of New York City Criminal Court, addressed the panel before the defense attorneys discussed their concerns.

“The court system is fully committed to exploring new ways to improve the administration of justice,” she said, noting that Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman had solicited suggestions on improvement from, among others, the city’s Office of Criminal Justice. After Gibson noted that the summons form should track the age and race or ethnicity of recipients, Jackson said the courts have been in discussion with the city to revise the forms.
Jackson said about 45 percent of summons recipients failed to make their initial appearances. She also confirmed that about 20 to 25 percent of fines went unpaid and turned into civil liens.

Earlier in the hearing, Councilman Rory Lancman, chair of the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, said the day’s proceedings boiled down to the question of whether broken windows policing is “breaking our courts.”

Lancman asked Glazer if figures like the low initial appearance rates and non-payment rates were “symptomatic of a system that is fundamentally broken?”

“You’ve put your finger on a number of things. It’s not just one issue. There are a number of issues with a cascading effect that we need to address,” Glazer said.

As she responded to Lancman, Glazer was interrupted by six or seven protesters who chanted “broken windows kills” as they were escorted out of the room.

By Andrew Keshner

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