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Counsel at arraignment pilot program to start May 15 in St. Lawrence County

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CANTON — The road to better legal representation for St. Lawrence County defendants at their first court appearance is paved with questions.

Last year, the state for the first time provided $12 million for 25 counties, including St. Lawrence, in a pilot program to provide counsel when defendants are arraigned. St. Lawrence’s share was $587,000 over three years.

“Although St. Lawrence County has not historically held arraignments off hours as a standard practice, this grant provides an opportunity to determine the opportunities and identify the challenges in a county with the geography and significant number of courts,” Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire wrote in a letter mailed this week to magistrates.

The program, targeted for the county’s busiest courts in Canton, Gouverneur, Massena, Potsdam, Ogdensburg, Fowler, Morristown, Oswegatchie, Pierrepont and Waddington, is scheduled to begin May 15 after already being delayed twice.

Despite the impending startup date, some judges still have procedural questions. It remains unclear who will be paid what and what will happen when the money runs out.

“When the grant money expires, we’re going to be on the hook,” Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, said. “It’s going to have an impact on us, and it’s not going to be a positive impact.”

Part of the purpose of the pilot study could be for the county to track its costs and ask the state for additional money, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

The program is the outgrowth of a recent Court of Appeals decision in Hurrell-Harring v. New York, which recognizes that having counsel is vital at arraignment.

Even if guilty pleas are not made at a defendant’s first judicial appearance, the court determined that other key interests exist, including the loss of employment and housing, and the inability to support and care for dependents.

“Recognizing the crucial importance of arraignment and the extent to which a defendant’s basic liberty and due process interests may then be affected, Criminal Procedure Law expressly provides for ‘the right to the aid of counsel at the arraignment and at every subsequent stage of the action’ and forbids a court from going forward with the proceeding without counsel for the defendant, unless the defendant has knowingly agreed to proceed in counsel’s absence,” the decision read. “Nothing in the statute may be read to justify the conclusion that the presence of defense counsel at arraignment is ever dispensable, except at a defendant’s informed option, when matters affecting the defendant’s pretrial liberty or ability subsequently to defend against the charges are to be decided.”

Representatives of the county Magistrates Association will meet May 12 with County Court Judge Jerome J. Richards and Public Defender Stephen D. Button — who wrote the grant application — to address concerns posed by local judges, Fowler Justice Paul M. Lamson said.

Among the questions are whether the program only applies to indigent defendants, how long the courts have to wait for a defense attorney to appear, how much attorneys will be paid, and how the attorneys will be called in.

“The county has to provide a central point of contact,” Mr. Lamson said. “There’s a lot of unanswered questions.”

The grant originally was written with Assigned Counsel in mind but the county then was told it had to follow its indigent defense plan, which includes use of the Public Defender and Conflict Defender.

For the time being, attorneys will come from the Public Defender’s Office and the Conflict Defender with Assigned Counsel participation possible. Half a dozen Assigned Counsel attorneys are willing to participate, although final plans have not been made, Administrator Scott B. Goldie said.

The county has come up with a $400 fee per appearance for attorneys who appear at late night and early morning arraignments. Whether Public Defender and Conflict Defender employees are paid extra remains unanswered as they are salaried, not independent contractors as Assigned Counsel attorneys are, Mr. Button said.

“My office is not paid overtime. We all work a lot of the time,” he said. “It’s an incredible burden on our office, but we follow the law.”

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