By David Brand
Acting Queens District Attorney John Ryan and the city’s four other top prosecutors visited City Hall Wednesday to raise concerns about a new state discovery law — and to ask for more money to implement it.
Ryan and his counterparts from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island testified during a hearing of the Committee on the Justice System about a statute mandating that prosecutors turn over evidence, known as discovery, to defense counsel within 15 days of a defendant’s arraignment. Discovery materials include the names and contact information of witnesses, photos and video recordings — including NYPD body-worn camera footage. The new law takes effect Jan. 1, 2020.
Supporters of the discovery reform measure say it will diffuse “trial by ambush,” where prosecutors can withhold materials until late in proceedings, forcing defendants to make decisions about plea deals without knowing what information the prosecutor will use against them. Local DAs say it will cause headaches for their offices and will threaten witness safety.
Ryan said the Queens DA’s Office would need about $1.5 million — which he called a “very big ballpark estimate” — to hire IT staff and paralegals and to purchase new computer “hardware and storage devices” in order to compile and disseminate discovery materials. Other DAs, including Bronx DA Darcel Clark, told the Committee — chaired by Queens Councilmember and DA candidate Rory Lancman — that their offices will need more money to adjust to the law’s requirements and to protect witnesses after divulging their names and contact information to defendants.
The statute, Ryan said, “will require a massive retooling of our discovery procedures requiring us to process all of these materials on cases.”
As of June 30, 2016, the Queens District Attorney’s Office had $113.5 million in federal asset forfeiture funds, the New York City Independent Budget Office reported last year.
Ryan specifically criticized the 15-day timeline by taking a swipe at the practices of The Legal Aid Society, New York City’s largest public defender organization.
Ryan said the DA’s Office currently sends defense attorneys a link to access the NYPD’s body-worn camera footage. The attorneys have 14 days to open the link and download the video, but many don’t do so within that window, Ryan said.
“Management at The Legal Aid Society” complained that two weeks wasn’t enough time “to open their emails,” he said.
“Under the new statute we are given 15 days to obtain, review and redact materials Legal Aid can’t even open in a two-week time period,” he said.
In addition to cost, Ryan said he fears the consequences of turning over witness names and contact information to the defense, which he said could threaten witness safety. Prosecutors do not have to turn over witness information to defense counsel until just before trial or a hearing where the witness will testify.
“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?” he said. “How do you put that reason for fear into a motion?”
”What about homicide [witness] in an insular community like the Rockaways?” he continued. “Why would they come forward when the defendant will know who they are?”
Ryan said the DA’s Office would adhere to the law, even though they disagree with it.
“We’re talking about substantially disrupting the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens,” he said.