judge gavel on brown wooden table

AUBURN — Changes are coming to off-hour arraignments in Cayuga County and across New York state after legislation signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to take effect at the end of February. 

Currently, local town and municipal judges answer their phone any time of day to conduct an arraignment on felony, misdemeanor or violation charges. Except for in the city of Auburn, defense attorneys are usually not called for those arraignments after hours, said Ray Lockwood, president of the Cayuga County Magistrates Association. A defense attorney will be assigned for future court appearances, but during that initial setting of bail and bond that sometimes occurs on the weekends or at 2 a.m. — there's usually just a judge present.

But with new legislation on the county's doorstep, all arraignments, even outside of county and city court, will be required to have a defense attorney present no matter what the time. Lockwood said the District Attorney's Office is not required to be present for these arraignments, but it could be. District Attorney Jon Budelmann could not be immediately reached for comment.

"The courts in New York State have ruled that you are entitled to an attorney at your arraignment, and we've been ignoring that," said Executive Director of the Assigned Counsel Program Lloyd Hoskins. "Now this kind of forces the issue that we have to look at it, and we have to develop a plan on how we're going to implement it."

Hoskins said some benefits to the legislation could be potentially lower bail set for defendants or more people released and trusted to return for their court appearances. But what concerns Hoskins and Lockwood is how this mandate will fit Cayuga County, and how it will be funded.

"I believe it's going to be costly," Hoskins said. "The governor signed the bill, but I don't see any money behind it. It's another unfunded impact on the county."

The county is still hoping Cuomo will sign legislation that would have the state cover indigent defense, especially after it expanded the eligibility requirements. Should that law be signed, Cayuga County could keep between $800,000 and $1 million it typically spends on attorneys for those who cannot afford one. 

Lockwood pointed out that with Cayuga County about 75 miles long, should there be an arraignment in Locke and one in Sterling, the travel and availability of defense attorneys could get tricky, too.

"The big issue here is you've got only so many sheriff's deputies and state police on the streets in Cayuga County at any given time," Lockwood said. "If they have a defendant that's been arrested for a felony of some sort, for example, let's say they're in the town of Conquest or one of the towns at the far end of the county, and the lawyer that's on call is at the other end of the county. You're going to have a judge, the defendant and the trooper tied up."

The county Magistrates Association will ultimately decide on a plan, but Hoskins and Lockwood mentioned a few ideas being considered. For example, there may be one town court on call for a certain day of the week so all arraignments could take place in one location. There could be a few courts spaced across the county to be on call. Or, arraignments could take place at Auburn City Court or at the Cayuga County Jail. None of those options have been decided upon, Lockwood said, but the association hopes to have a program in place soon.

In the meantime, the association, the Assigned Counsel Program, the District Attorney's Office and the Cayuga County Sheriff's Office are all in discussions about how best to move forward. Lockwood said he's taking a survey of town justices to see about how many arraignments they conduct per month, and how many of those may be during off hours, too. He hopes that will help estimate the costs and help inform what strategy may be best.

Sheriff David Gould said he has also been exploring new electronic equipment that may allow judges to hold video arraignments. But a lot, he said, is "up in the air."

"It's going to be a law," Gould said. "Regardless of when it happens, it is going to happen. We're trying to jump ahead and make sure everyone in the county is working together. We are all working together to make sure we are doing it right."

Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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