Lawmakers mull centralized arraignment ideas

SARANAC LAKE — Local leaders are continuing to grapple with the potential implications of all arraignments in the county being centralized in Malone to guarantee representation for defendants, and as some proposed solutions are shot down, more are forming.

As the state Office of Indigent Legal Services pushes courts to ensure there’s a public defender at every arraignment, which it describes as “a fundamental right,” Franklin County is considering moving all arraignments to a county facility near the jail in Malone — rather than conducting them at local courts — to keep its limited number of public defenders from needing to travel all over the county for arraignments in different towns. The county is considering this under the guidance of the state’s 4th judicial district, which encompasses a variety of North Country counties, including Franklin County.

At a joint meeting of the Harrietstown town council and Saranac Lake village board on Monday, Gary Hobbs, the supervising judge for Franklin County magistrates; Matt Chivers, who works for Hobbs in the 4th judicial district and Franklin County Manager Donna Kissane attended and spoke about the issue.

At the end of the conversation, local leaders said it was clear there is no optimal solution. There are severe shortages of lawyers and law enforcement officers across the board. But they hope to find a compromise to ease the burden on every agency, keep the community safe and cause the least inconvenience to people who are arrested, all while providing legal defense representation at every arraignment.

“Everyone’s not going to get 100% of what they want, but I think through discussion we can come to an agreement that is least-bad for everybody,” Harrietstown Supervisor Jordanna Mallach said.

The conversation is just starting, Mallach said. They have time to find solutions, but in a little over a year, a deadline coming.

Proposed changes

The county currently supplies public defenders for those who cannot hire their own legal representation.

In Franklin County, public defenders are on call to attend to arraignments, but there’s not enough of them to travel around the county at all hours of the day and night.

If a new, centralized system is approved, arraignments would be held in Malone twice a day — at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. — to make attending arraignments easier for the public defender’s office.

With this system, the 25 town and village justices in Franklin County would each take a day presiding in the court in Malone for those arraignments.

But transporting detainees to Malone is something Saranac Lake Mayor Jimmy Williams said he and his police department can’t support at current staffing levels.

Providing legal representation virtually, an idea Harrietstown Councilman Johnny Williams liked, will prove difficult to do, Hobbs and Chivers said.

There’s now discussions of law enforcement sharing the responsibility of transporting defendants, a public defender being based in Saranac Lake specifically for these arraignments, or changing the law to allow the town to conduct virtual arraignments again.

“We just want to continue to come up with solutions that maybe aren’t perfect for everyone but that we can all support on some level,” Kissane said.

They still have time to brainstorm more ideas. Then, Hobbs and Chivers would draft a plan. This plan would go to stakeholders — the sheriff, town judges, county public defenders, law enforcement agencies and county legislators. These stakeholders would look the plan, give input and potentially throw their support behind it. At some point, the county board would consider it for a vote. The board could pass a resolution for a capital project to spend money on centralized arraignment.

Kissane said such a vote is still months away. They’re in the research and discovery phase right now.

Chivers said the real deadline to implement centralized arraignment is in April or May of 2024. That’s when Franklin County Public Defender Tom Soucia is set to retire. Soucia has been covering the majority off-hours arraignments around the county. Chivers said they need to plan ahead for this.

Attorney shortage

Kissane said she believes centralized arraignment will be beneficial to local courts, county attorneys and towns in the long term.

But Franklin County has a unique geography, she said, which creates distance problems for courts in every reach of the county.

Chivers said of all the counties in the 4th judicial district, Franklin County also has the most severe shortage of attorneys he’s seen. Kissane said the county is in need of more attorneys, especially in the south end. It’s been dealing with a shortage for years now, she said.

Hobbs said this has created “burnout” in public defenders and district attorneys. Kissane said the county expects to lose a public defender and two district attorneys in the next few months. It will need applicants and she would would be happy with a south end attorney.

Kissane said the county is currently waiving its residency requirements for these positions and paying an extra stipend for those who join after-hours rotations. She’s speaking with the state Office of Indigent Legal Services about hiring an arraignment attorney.

Police can’t support change

Jimmy said if SLPD brings someone to an arraignment, that would take two officers out of the village for around three hours. Most of the time, the village only has two officers on a shift at a time.

“If you mandate someone to do the impossible, can it be done?” Jimmy asked after the meeting. “I don’t know. … You’re taking one void and you’re trying to create two more to fix it.”

Hiring a few more officers, as monumental and expensive a task as that is, wouldn’t even solve the problem, Jimmy said. They would need four or five new officers to make transportations work, he estimated.

Jimmy asked what would happen if the village and SLPD say they just can’t do the arraignment transportations. Hobbs said then the judges will not arraign the detainee. A judge cannot conduct an arraignment if no defense attorney is present, he said.

That would mean local law enforcement would have to supervise the defendant while they wait at the police station. This could be for hours.

“Pick your analogy,” Chivers said on Monday. “Do you want to be a glorified chauffeur or do you want to be a glorified babysitter?”

Jimmy and SLPD Chief Darin Perrotte said they prefer police being a babysitter. Jimmy estimated it would cost $500 per trip to Malone between gas, hours, vehicle wear and tear. And Perrotte said than at least they would be at the station in the case of an emergency.

The SLPD does not have many officers, Perrotte said, and he can’t just call new officers in. Many of his officers live in Malone, too, he added.

Mallach asked if the 4th Judicial District could offer resources for transportation.

Chivers said the district could offer computers for local courts to share paperwork and possibly fund training for judges on the tech. But as far as transportation money goes, he said he didn’t have an answer.

If people can be arraigned in town, that would be best, Jimmy said.

“A person who needs to be arraigned could maybe go home to their kids instead of being stuck overnight in Malone,” he said.

Jimmy asked if they were able to find a lawyer willing to be on-call in Saranac Lake for arraignments, would Harrietstown be allowed to opt out of sending detainees to Malone.

Chivers said this is a “big hypothetical” — lawyers are hard to find nowadays. And he thought that still wouldn’t fix the problem. The town courthouse would need to add new security measures and local police would still need to transport people to Malone if a judge chooses to remand them to the jail there.

Trustee Matt Scollin asked if a detainee goes to Malone for an arraignment, how they will get back.

Hobbs said no one is obliged to give them a ride. They can call for someone to pick them up and sit in the building’s visiting area to wait. He said this already happens with certain cases, like people who get out-of-town DWIs and their car is impounded or license revoked.

Virtual no-go

Jimmy asked about virtual representation at arraignments — having a defendant in person before a judge, with a public defender calling in via video conferencing.

“Personally, I would love it,” Hobbs said. “But by statute it’s not going to be able to be done.”

He said the law says defendants have the right to live in-person representation. To change this would require changing the statute itself, Hobbs said.

Scollin asked if the defendant could waive that right to in-person representation if they don’t want to be transported to Malone. Hobbs said they could, but that requires a lengthy questioning period while the court determines that the defendant understands the waiver.

An exception to the in-person representation requirement was made during the pandemic, but it has since ended. Chivers said the state Office of Indigent Legal Services has said it will pull grant money from counties if arraignments are not done in person.

Williams wondered if towns in the south end of Franklin County could get waivers to allow virtual representation because of transportation hardships here.

Kissane said she would pursue investigating this idea and would contact local state representatives Assemblyman Billy Jones and state Sen. Dan Stec to see if they could work on amending the statute with them.

Councilwoman Ashley Milne asked for data on how often arraignment is needed. Mallach said the state’s bail reforms passed in 2019 reduced how often arraignments are done and has “skewed the data.”

Mallach said all law enforcement agencies will need to work together.

Perrotte said currently, sheriffs come to Harrietstown for arraignments, or meet SLPD half way, to bring people to jail in Malone.

Hobbs wondered if the county needs to increase the money it has for sheriff transportations.


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