Essential criminal court proceedings will continue through virtual courtroom
Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn announced felony hearings and pleas will resume – in a virtual courtroom setting – in criminal cases in Erie County this week as New York state comes off Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “PAUSE” executive order.
All nonessential court proceedings were adjourned on March 16, in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among court staff and the public. Essential proceedings such as arraignments and bail motions have continued in Erie County through a virtual courtroom to maintain social distancing.
A felony hearing is held before a judge in the jurisdiction where the crime allegedly occurred in order to establish reasonable cause that a crime happened and that the defendant may have committed the offense. The victim or witness must be present to testify. The defendant and their defense attorney are also present during the hearing. The defense attorney may cross-examine the witness after the assistant district attorney questions the witness or member of law enforcement about the crime. After hearing the testimony, the judge makes one of the following decisions on the case:
√ Reasonable cause exists and the case can be presented to the grand jury, or
√ Reasonable cause exists, but the elements of a felony charge do not, then the charge may be reduced to a misdemeanor.
√ Further proceedings will take place in the local criminal court, or
√ Reasonable cause does not exist and charges will be dismissed
A felony hearing must occur no later than six days after an arraignment if the defendant is in custody. If the defendant is out of custody, a felony hearing is typically not held and will not be held at this time.
The New York State Unified Court System adjourned felony hearings and other nonessential court procedures in mid-March, pursuant to the “PAUSE” order. Further, Cuomo tolled several provisions of the criminal procedure law until June 6, therefore extending speedy trial and discovery timeframes.
Starting this week, the Erie County District Attorney’s Office will coordinate with defense attorneys and judges to schedule virtual court appearances for defendants to enter guilty pleas.
A press release said, “To ensure the health and safety of all, everyone must wear a mask in the Erie County Court building. If an individual scheduled to testify does not have a mask, they will be provided with a mask by a court officer or the DA’s confidential criminal investigator when entering the building.
“All witnesses will gather in the grand jury entrance where they will be assigned a seat to maintain social distancing. Witnesses will remain in the grand jury until they are escorted to the district attorney’s office by an Investigator to testify.
“Only an assistant district attorney and the witness will be in the conference room within the district attorney’s office during the virtual court proceeding while seated six feet apart. After testifying, the witness will be escorted out of the building by a confidential criminal investigator. Conference rooms used for felony hearing testimony will be sanitized after use, and disposable gloves will be available.
“All evidence will be sent electronically to the judge presiding over the matter.”
Flynn said, “While we cannot return to in-person court proceedings at this time, I am pleased to announce that we can continue to move these criminal cases forward while maintaining social-distancing practices. My office will continue to investigate and prosecute these matters while doing our best to ensure the health and safety of our victims, witnesses, court staff and members of law enforcement.”