By David Brand
A new state law that forces prosecutors to share evidence with defendants and their attorneys early in court proceedings is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2020, but that doesn’t mean Queens prosecutors are eager to accept the change.
The measure would compel prosecutors to turn over evidence like witness information, photographs and videos — known as discovery — to defense attorneys within 15 days of arraignment.
“What a God damn disgrace,” said Queens Assistant District Attorney Kevin Ramnarain in a Facebook post that paints a bleak picture of alleged rapists and shooters getting the “personal contact information” of victims. The Eagle obtained a screenshot of the post.
The new law will mark a significant departure from the status quo in New York City district attorneys’ offices, where prosecutors are not obligated to turn over discovery materials until the eve of hearings or a trial, a practice that reformers call “trial by ambush.” Opponents have focused on the issue that prosecutors will have to share witness information with defendants.
Ramnarain said he worried about the “innocent bystanders who get struck by stray bullets while walking to work, the woman who is sexually assaulted by a stranger while she sleeps in her home, those who wake up to masked men ransacking their home while their kids sleep in the next room, the children molested by pedophiles while walking to school.”
The measure enables prosecutors to apply for a protective order to withhold certain evidence, such as witness information, if it poses a safety concern, Ramnarain acknowledged.
“This is what you get when you elect people to office who perpetuate the false narrative of mass incarceration in New York City,” Ramnarain said. “[E]lected officials whose first priority is ‘riding the progressive wave’ to get votes, to be popular on Twitter, to fight for the rights of those accused of crimes and disregard victims of crimes.”
“This city is utterly insane,” he added.
The new discovery reform statute puts New York in line with 40 other states — including Texas and North Carolina — that already mandate the early sharing of evidence. Reform advocates and defense attorneys, criticize the current delays because they force defendants to make decisions about plea deals without knowing what information the prosecutor will use against them.
“Broad discovery has worked in 40 other states and has worked in Brooklyn for over 30 years. The Queens District Attorney’s Office is far out-of-step with modern criminal justice practices and mired in the 1980s,” said Timothy Rountree, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice for the Legal Aid Society. They are resorting to falsehoods and sensationalism about open discovery — which has been used successfully across the country for decades — simply because they do not want to give up the unfair and unjustifiable leverage they routinely employ to coerce guilty pleas and to undermine fair preparations by the defense.”
Human Rights Watch said New York’s current discovery law “creates prejudice against people accused of crimes, whether they are guilty or innocent,” in a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in March. The state adopted discovery reform as part of the latest budget.
Acting Queens District Attorney John Ryan defended Ramnarain’s critique of the law and told the Eagle that he made a “lengthy, well-reasoned critique of the law — something he has every right to do.”
“His comment using ‘God damn disgrace" was specifically aimed at the disclosure of the victim contact information,” Ryan said. “While I would have preferred he had not used "God damn" I believe most victims would agree with him ... and probably would want to use words stronger than ‘God damn.’
Ryan told the City Council Committee on the Justice System on May 22 that the measure would enable defendants to get names and information about crime witnesses.
“How do you explain to the court that a witness in the Ravenswood Houses who [saw] a gang shooting is afraid to have her name revealed to the defendant?” Ryan said during his rapid testimony before the committee, chaired by Councilmember and Queens DA candidate Rory Lancman. “How do you put that reason for fear into a motion?”
Ryan also told the Committee on the Justice System that the Queens DA’s Office would need roughly $1.5 million in the upcoming city budget — an amount he called a “very big ballpark” estimate — to hire paralegals and upgrade office technology to accommodate the earlier sharing of discovery materials.
A 2018 report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that the Queens DA’s Office has $113.5 million in asset forfeiture funds as of June 30, 2016. The Queens DA used $1.67 million to fund upgrades in courtrooms in the Queens Criminal Courthouse.
Ryan told the Eagle the office would not be able to use the asset forfeiture funds to pay for measures to meet the discovery requirements because of a cumbersome allocation process.
“The use of asset forfeiture funds on the federal and state level is restricted and subjected to very prescribed guidelines. For example, both federal and state forfeiture monies must be used to supplement and not supplant budget funding that has been provided by the city,” Ryan said. “We are also generally barred from using these monies to offset salary costs. We do intend to maximize the use of asset forfeiture funds, where we can, to meet the new challenges of the recently enacted changes in discovery and bail laws.”
As for the use of forfeiture to upgrade courtrooms, Ryan said the DA’s Office needed approval from the U.S. Treasury Department.
“This process has taken close to two years and is an example of some of the complexities involved in using forfeiture funds,” Ryan said. “The expense we will incur as a result of these new laws for all of the DA’s offices are most appropriately borne by the city of New York.”
To ease the rollout of new justice reforms, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice told the Brooklyn Eagle it would develop a task force to consider funding and other obstacles.
“We are formalizing this work into a Criminal Justice Reform Implementation Task Force, which will streamline and evaluate system and resource needs by bringing together the many entities who play an important role in helping ensure smooth implementation of the reforms by Jan. 1, 2020,” said MOCJ Director Elizabeth Glazer.