File photo: Denise Civiletti

When arrest warrants pile up in our town justice court, not acted upon by our police who are supposed to execute them, something is wrong — seriously wrong. And it shows that the basic principle of civilian control of law enforcement might be eroding for the Riverhead Police and, in turn, all of us. The State of New York, for its part, with its newly intensified level of one-party government, has just made the problem worse.

So let’s focus on this problem in Riverhead Justice Court, where every person arrested within the Town of Riverhead must first appear to answer charges. People charged by police with crimes classified as felonies come to justice court first for arraignment but are generally prosecuted in county criminal court. The justice court handles misdemeanor cases from beginning to end. These are second to felonies as the most serious type of crime. Justice court also handles crimes classified as violations, as well as vehicle and traffic law violations and town code violations. The court typically handles 100-200 criminal cases, Monday through Wednesday and a handful of criminal arraignments every other day.

Normally, when a defendant charged with a crime fails to appear on the required court date, the judge hands down a warrant. The warrant is an order to the town police requiring the defendant to be arrested and brought into court, so that the case might continue.

In Riverhead Justice Court, these warrants have been piling up, as the town police lack the personnel staff a “warrant squad” to routinely execute these warrants. This has been a bone of contention between the police chief and the senior town justice for some time.

And so, as of last week, no less than 839 such warrants gather dust in the justice court’s files, and the defendants have long been on their merry way. Many will continue with their criminal behavior. And as for those cases where there are victims, justice delayed — now indefinitely delayed — is justice denied, or worse.

If it so happens that the police later encounter these warrant-status defendants in other circumstances, such as in a traffic stop, or in the course of the commission of another crime, a check for any warrants against that individual is performed, and if a warrant is outstanding, it will be enforced. In other words, if the missing defendant drops in their laps, they will bring him or her in.

This practice of warrant checks is also provided by other law enforcement agencies, such as the Sheriff’s Department and the State Police. But all this is shoveling against the tide for Riverhead, as the hundreds of idle warrants attest. If, as here, the town PD gives warrants such a low priority, chance encounters and some help from the outside obviously cannot get the job done.

Setting these priorities is a policy matter, and policy in law enforcement is a governance issue. Civilian control of law enforcement is basic to a democracy. Under New York State Town Law, the town board exercises the powers and duties of police commissioners, unless the board appoints either a board of police commissioners or designates the town supervisor as police commissioner. In Riverhead, town code previously required the appointment of a three-person board of commissioners. But in April 2016, the board repealed that code so that the entire town board would serve as commissioners.

Is governance of a law enforcement agency by committee the best option? How well do problems get resolved — be they routine, day-to-day issues or serious ones such as the town PD’s being too busy to handle something as important as executing arrest warrants? Is the town board taking this oversight role seriously? Are they aware of this festering warrant crisis? They have not discussed it at any work session — or budgeted funding to address it.

Enter the state power brokers in Albany to exponentially add to the problem. After Democrat election victories in November, both houses of the state legislature, now devoid of the checks and balances of a two-party system, passed what they proudly described as comprehensive criminal justice reform. It is another example of the failures of one-party rule, which leaves the public ailing, as in the Town of Riverhead from its own one-party rule until a couple of years ago.

And what a state reform it is, quickly signed into law by the governor, who originally proposed it as part of his “budget.” This proposal lurked in the shadows of the State Assembly in past legislative sessions, then suddenly, after the recent elections, where one-party rule solidified, sailed through the State Senate as part of a budget bill (with no real hearings) and now is set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

At that point, with limited exceptions, defendants who commit crimes, both misdemeanors and felonies, will simply get a “desk appearance ticket,” telling them to be in court on a certain, future date rather than be taken into custody and held for court. Does it really help the fight against crime when the police see probable cause that a crime is being or has been committed, but can no longer bring in a defendant to be arraigned, and for the court to set bail, if the judge finds bail necessary?

There’s more to this so-called reform. The court is required to send the defendant a reminder of the upcoming court appearance. And if the defendant disobeys the ”appearance ticket,” the court has to send him or her a second notice. Continued failure to appear after that finally allows a warrant to be handed down. But as we have seen, things don’t go well with warrants in Riverhead.

The state’s “speedy trial” law requires that charges be dropped after 30 to 180 days, depending on the crime charged, if the people can’t prosecute their case. If a person charged and released on a desk appearance ticket fails to appear and manages to evade arrest under a warrant — not a difficult feat in Riverhead, apparently — he or she may escape prosecution altogether.

Where does public safety come into this failure to deal with our court’s warrants, coupled with the zeal of our state lawmakers to add to the problem? Reform the bail system, yes, but how does any system of justice function with such clumsy restrictions, imbalanced in favor of the lawbreakers instead of the victim and the innocent public at large? If our police do indeed lack the resources to execute warrants, how are they going to handle the cascading paperwork of these appearance tickets and notices, and all the tracking that goes with them?

Riverhead’s two state representatives wisely opposed this reform package that was hidden in the budget, but they are not part of the one-party in-crowd that now rules the day in Albany, who are clever in pulling stunts like this below the public’s radar. And is it high time the Riverhead Town Board gets rid of their feckless committee approach to steering our town PD? They ought to consider working with the PD top brass and the rank and file and maybe some retired law enforcement people and civilian specialists in planning a new commish structure.

And as for bail reform, a far more sensible approach is to limit how long a charged defendant can be held in pre-trial confinement. Any bail that is set would be vacated if the government doesn’t bring its case to court within a limited, date-certain timeframe. And the defendant would then be released. Also, set rules for judges to give much closer consideration than judges do now of a charged defendant’s personal financial situation when setting bail.

Just as a judge’s is obliged to decide if a guilty plea is proper, a judge should not accept it if pre-trial confinement or high bail motivates the plea. The judge instead should reject such a guilty plea, enter a not guilty plea on the defendant’s behalf, and set the matter down for an early trial. A more equitable bail formula and limits on the length of pretrial confinement would enable this.

While the emerging radicalism in Albany carelessly transforms our local system of justice in ways that will unfavorably impact most of us, the town board should both take a hard look at police governance structure, and address this appalling backlog with the town justice court warrants. These collective actions of our state and local government, by design or by neglect, clearly put the community at risk, and that is a result we must not accept.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg