New York City’s courts are implementing new rules designed to speed gun possession cases through the system, reacting to political pressure while sparking concerns that some defendants could be railroaded.
Court administrators in all five boroughs will now steer gun possession cases to specialized courtrooms, where judges will push prosecutors to provide evidence and plea offers, and hold routine check-ins aimed at moving cases along, THE CITY has learned.
The protocols also seek to limit delays, cut down on the time between hearings, and hasten judges’ decisions on motions and sentencing.
The mandate, detailed in a three-page memo sent by court administrators to judges last week and reviewed by THE CITY, came several weeks after Mayor Eric Adams blamed a backlog of court cases for contributing to gun violence, borrowing a page from his predecessor.
“This pandemic has frayed the social safety net at every level, and has had a long-lasting, damaging impact on our justice system,” Adams said at a speech in late January announcing his “blueprint” on gun violence. “Our court system is operating at a fraction of its previous capacity, and it has put our communities at risk.”
Adams is scheduled to present his blueprint to Congress on Tuesday, in a sign of his political influence on the issue.
Currently, the five boroughs’ Supreme Court divisions are juggling nearly 3,000 gun cases, just over half of which have stayed in the system for more than six months, according to Office of Court Administration data.
George Grasso, the administrative judge of Queens Supreme Court and an architect of the fast-track effort, said the new mandates — which build on an already existing speed-up program — show just how invested the courts are in tackling the system’s long-standing gun case backlog.
“How long have you been hearing, coming from district attorneys, coming from the previous mayoral administration, coming from the NYPD, ‘How come the court isn’t moving these cases faster?” he said. “Well, here we go. Here are the rules. This is how we’re going to try and do it.”
‘A PR Strategy’
Richard Aborn, president of the nonprofit Citizens Crime Commission, applauded the new rules, which he said could deter gun violence by signaling swift sanctions for the carrying of illegal weapons.
“There have to be immediate consequences,” he said. “You have to understand that if you do something today, there are going to be consequences, very, very quickly.”
Defense attorneys, and even some current and former prosecutors, argue that the initiative limits their ability to come to plea agreements that take into account the complex social realities that drive people in poor, high-crime neighborhoods to carry illegal guns.
An August 2020 Center for Court Innovation survey of more than 300 young New Yorkers deemed to be at risk for gun violence found that four out of five reported they had been shot, or shot at, at least once. The majority, nearly all Black and Latino, told researchers that they had obtained illegal guns between the ages of 14 and 17. Many viewed guns as a tool for survival, especially for those shunted into the black market economy.
One Manhattan defense attorney said speeding cases does no favors for her clients.
“To resolve gun cases in an equitable manner that enhances community safety, we need time to investigate mitigating circumstances and assist our clients with accessing services for unmet behavioral and mental health needs,” said Alice Fontier, managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. “Instead, [the Office of Court Administration’s] policy pushes our clients to suppression hearings, trial and into incarceratory plea deals often before we even have complete discovery from the DA’s office.”
Adam Uris, a criminal defense attorney and former Brooklyn prosecutor, points out that the right to a speedy trial right is enshrined in New York state law for defendants, not DAs. People weighing whether they should go to trial or to take a plea deal, potentially resulting in several years upstate, should not be rushed in any jurisdiction, he asserted.
“It makes you wonder, why are young black and brown kids not entitled to their constitutional protections, just as much as a kid in Westchester?” he said.
Some in district attorney’s offices assert that the new rules focus too much on pro-forma check-ins, and too little on processes, like DNA testing, which can take months to complete.
“This is a PR strategy, not a gun violence strategy,” said one city prosecutor, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. “But after they got bashed by the mayor and the police, it’s nakedly clear that they want to make a public show of pushing gun cases forward with the emphasis being on ‘public show.’”
In a phone call with THE CITY, Grasso dismissed the criticism. He said that the change could actually help defendants by getting them discovery materials and plea offers more expeditiously.
“Everything that everybody is entitled to, they are still entitled to,” he said. “We’re just looking to move everything faster.