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A ‘strain’ on police officers

Malverne Police Department prepares for new evidence law

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The Malverne Police Department has expressed its concern to the Herald about a new state law set to take effect in January that will require the village to immediately turn over all evidence in criminal cases to the Nassau County district attorney’s office.

Once the D.A.’s office has received the evidence, county officials must provide copies to a defendant or defense team within 15 days after an indictment.

Malverne Police Chief John Aresta said that while his department only averages roughly 100 case discoveries each year, he was still concerned about the increased workload.

“The paperwork is going to be the easy part,” Aresta said. “But everything else, from video to audio and turning that over to the D.A. . . . you can’t just have anybody do it. Turning over crime evidence in 15 days is close to impossible.”

Aresta, a past president of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, said that no one from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office had informed the group about plans for the discovery law.

“The first time we knew about is when it was going to be passed,” Aresta recalled. “That’s kind of disheartening when the governor won’t even ask the state officials what they think. We’re the ones doing this day in and day out, not the lawyers on his staff.”

District Attorney Madeline Singas said that the new law would be a “huge burden for small police departments and a huge burden on the budgetary needs in Nassau County.”

“You can say you want this stuff in whatever your time limits are,” Singas said, “but who’s going to pay [and] help to expedite these services?

“There’s no money from Albany,” she continued. “It’s going to be very tight.” For Nassau County, processing all evidence from 25 different departments will be complicated, time-consuming and expensive, Singas added.

In Malverne, complying with the unfunded mandate threatens to increase police overtime, but the true impact will be unknown until the new law takes effect, according to Aresta.

“We don’t know all the ramifications it’s going to have in the criminal justice system,” he said. “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

Aresta said that he has discussed the impending law with his officers, and the impact that the increased burden would have on their daily tasks. He added that because the police are in a budget year, they are planning to hire people to handle criminal evidence.

“We didn’t see it coming, so we’re not looking to do it right now, but it may evolve over time,” Aresta said. “It’s frustrating, but as police officers, we rise to the occasion. Whatever they put in front of us, we’ll make it work, but it’s going to put a strain on us.”

New York had one of the most restrictive discovery laws in the nation, which had not been changed since 1979, and allowed prosecutors to withhold information until a case went to trial, according to a 2017 Marshall Project report.

Prosecutors were not previously obliged to turn over evidence, explained Hofstra University law professor Barbara Barron. Only when a judge ordered a district attorney to do so was evidence handed over, she said.

“The defendant has a right to prepare a defense,” Barron said. “A defendant is entitled to have a full, fair day in court.” The new law will allow the accused to mount vigorous defenses.

Barron said the old law was, in part, intended to protect prosecution witnesses. The new measure, however, does permit prosecutors to request a protective order from a judge, allowing prosecutors to withhold witness information on a case-by-case basis.

State Assemblywoman Taylor Darling, a Democrat from the Village of Hempstead, and Assemblywoman Kimberly Jean-Pierre, a Democrat from Wheatley Heights, were the only Assembly members from Long Island to co-sponsor the new law before it was voted on earlier this year. Darling said that it will level the playing field and give everyone a fair chance at due process.

“Through this bill, I feel that we are going to address inequalities,” Darling said. “We are available to work with the municipalities, but we’re also taking care of people who can’t advocate for themselves.”