The Progress of Criminal Cases in Westchester County and Putnam County, New York
By Don Murray, Partner in Shalley and Murray.
Criminal Cases in Westchester County and Putnam County (as well as the rest of New York) are divided into misdemeanors and felonies. Other offenses in New York that are not considered criminal are called violations. Violations, like disorderly conduct, or certain forms of harassment, will generally be heard in the smaller local town and village courts in Westchester County and Putnam County.
Misdemeanor cases in Westchester County and Putnam County are generally handled in one of the variety of local Courts located throughout Westchester and Putnam County.
Misdemeanors are less serious than felonies, although they are considered criminal offenses and can carry up to one year in jail as a maximum punishment (in addition to various fines and surcharges).
Examples of misdemeanors include driving while intoxicated as a first offense (DWI), most shoplifting accusations, assault in which the injury alleged is not severe, certain minor drug possession accusations, and violations of certain orders of protection.
Misdemeanor cases are handled start to finish in the local criminal courts where they originate. Despite their often modest surroundings, these small local courtrooms can be the scene of a trial. Misdemeanor jury trials seem to be fairly rare in Westchester and Putnam County and can represent an enormous additional load for some of the smaller local courts. Jurors are ordered well in advance, court reporters are ordered, and even special court sessions are held to accommodate a misdemeanor jury trial. In the intimate surroundings of some of these courts, some awkward but amusing situations can arise.
In one circumstance in which I had a misdemeanor jury trial in a small local court in Upper Westchester, my client and I, the court clerk, and other court staff all chipped in with some of the potential jurors to set up chairs for jury selection in the small room that we had for the trial. This is in stark contrast to the more formal proceedings in the New York City Courts. Personally, I found the local judge to be extraordinarily knowledgeable and fair, the court staff highly professional, and the entire misdemeanor jury trial experience in Westchester to be quite extraordinary.
The County Prosecutor will send representatives to each of the local courts on the dates that the local courts are in session. In Westchester and Putnam County, the local courts are often in session only once or twice a week and at night. Some of the larger locations in Westchester will hold court every day. Most, however, have limited sessions.
Many of the judges also continue to maintain their positions as lawyers in private law firms (although they will not obviously practice in their own county).
Felony cases in Westchester County and Putnam County are handled in the central County Court located in each county, although arraignments (first appearance after arrest) and some preliminary matters for felony cases may be handled at the local city court level.
Felonies are more serious charges carrying potential punishments of more than one year and up to life imprisonment in some circumstances.
Examples of felonies include robbery, certain dwi accusations, most gun and drug possession accusations, serious assault accusations, theft of large amounts of money or property, and others.
Felony convictions also have a variety of non-prison consequences as well, and in some cases these non-prison consequences can be even more devastating to the life of the person convicted than the jail time. For example, non-citizens (including legal residents) who are convicted of felonies are at extreme risk of being deported back to countries they may have never really lived and where they have no connection. Felony convictions also result in the loss of certain civil rights, like the right to vote, and can make it illegal for the person convicted to ever possess a firearm.
Progress of Felony
The local Town, Village, or City courts will conduct the arraignment of the defendant on the initial felony complaint charges, preside over the initial court appearances, and will handle felony hearings before a case is potentially sent to a Westchester County Grand Jury for indictment.
Felony Plea Bargaining
While a felony complaint is pending in a local Town, Village, or City Court, and before a case has been indicted by a Grand Jury, the prosecution and defense can and sometimes do agree to resolve a felony matter by way of a plea bargain.
Occasionally those accused of felony charges seek to avoid the risks associated with going to trial (and possibly losing) by striking an agreement with the Government to accept a felony plea bargain. A person accused can, under the right circumstances, obtain a commitment of a plea to a lesser charge and no prison in exchange for a plea of guilty.
There are a number of factors that must be considered when engaging in pre-indictment felony plea bargaining. They include: the level of the felony offense, whether the charge is a violent felony charge, the accused's prior criminal history or lack thereof, and the strength of the prosecution case and the potential witnesses, mandatory prison sentences in the event of conviction, the willingness of the witnesses to cooperate, and of course whether the accused is interested in negotiations at all. Certainly a person who is innocent may choose to forgo all plea negotiations out of hand regardless of all else. In fact, the criminal justice system tells us that those who claim innocence are generally not permitted to take guilty pleas and must instead place their faith in the concept that the criminal justice system will always generate the correct result.
Felony Hearings in Westchester and Putnam Counties
Felony hearings are preliminary hearings in felony cases required by law when the government wants to hold a person in jail on felony charges without an indictment. At a felony hearing, the government must prove that there is reasonable cause to believe that a crime was committed. This is not anything close to the burden of proof required at trial (beyond a reasonable doubt) but does force the government to present some of their witnesses and expose them to cross-examination by a defense lawyer.
The Grand Jury is a group of people who gather to hear evidence on felony charges. The job of the Grand Jury is not to consider whether the Government has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead the Grand Jury is there to decide whether the Government has presented enough of a case to justify taking the accused to trial. That is why an indictment is not a finding of guilt. One way of thinking of an indictment is as a written permission slip for the Government to take a person to trial on a particular criminal charge.
Although people accused do have the right to testify before the Grand Jury, it is generally considered among criminal defense lawyers to be a risky move. The Grand Jury is run by the District Attorney's Office. The witnesses presented by the Government are presented in secret and they are not cross-examined by defense counsel. In fact, defense counsel is not entitled to know precisely who testified or what they said. Defense counsel is not permitted to speak to the Grand Jury in any way. Only the person accused is allowed to speak and is required to make a long narrative statement. After he makes his statement, the District Attorney is allowed to cross-examine him at will. In short, it is not considered a defendant friendly place (not that anyplace is considered a defendant friendly place).
As a result of the obstacles to being in a position to meet the accusations and cross-examine the accusers, the Grand Jury is not a place where people accused of crimes have a great deal of success. It is the rare case indeed in which a person accused of a crime receives a "No True Bill" or dismissal from the Grand Jury.
If the Grand Jury does dismiss a case, that is pretty much the end of it and the case is usually over. Therefore, many people initially see it as great chance to try to win the case. The difficulty is that the odds are so stacked against the accused in the Grand Jury that the benefit of potentially winning the case is actually more often than not outweighed by the damage that could be caused by making statements under oath that could be used against the accused later in the far more likely event that the Grand Jury votes to indict. Realize that a vote to indict is not a vote to convict. A Grand Juror could honestly believe that the accused could be absolutely innocent and still vote to indict. The standard to indict a person is essentially merely, "Is it possible that the person committed the crime?"
Once the case is indicted by a Grand Jury, the case is then transferred to County Court. In Westchester, County Court is located in White Plains. In Putnam County, County Court is located in Carmel.
The County Courts will then handle all aspects of the prosecution of the indictment from arraignment on the indictment, through motion practice, possible suppression hearings, plea conferences, and ultimately until the case is completed after a trial verdict, disposed of by plea negotiations, or dismissed for legal reasons.