Legal aid group sues East End cops, courts

The entrance to Riverhead Town Justice Court. (Credit: Paul Squire, file)
The entrance to Riverhead Town Justice Court. (Credit: Paul Squire, file)

Conditions at the Riverhead Justice Court might not be all that just.

A lawsuit filed last week by the Suffolk County Legal Aid Society seeks to shift all criminal arraignments for people arrested in Riverhead — as well as several other East End municipalities — to 1st District Court in Central Islip, claiming the local justice courts lack adequate conference space where attorneys can meet privately with their clients, as required by the Constitution. 

“The right of an accused in a criminal case to have the assistance of counsel is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit states.

The towns of Riverhead, Southold and Southampton and their police departments, as well as the villages of Southampton and Sag Harbor and their police departments, were all named as defendants in the lawsuit, as were Suffolk County and the New York State Office of Court Administration.

The lawsuit further states that Legal Aid attorneys assigned to defendants in courts in the towns and villages named “are being compelled to converse with the defendants in the presence of law enforcement personnel, thereby waiving the protection of confidentiality and risking that the attorney-client conversation will be used against the defendant in the criminal case.”

Riverhead Town officials don’t disagree that conditions are subpar and plan to take action to remedy the situation.

“I know from working in that court that the justice court has been woefully inadequate since the day it was built,” said Riverhead Councilman Jim Wooten, a former town police officer.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said the town plans to partition off a section of its justice court where attorneys and clients can meet privately.

The room would have a small telephone booth in which the attorney and client, separated by a plastic glass wall, could communicate by phone, he said.

Mr. Walter said he’s still committed to a plan to move the justice court and police department to the former armory building on Route 58, which the town acquired from the state in 2011. Last year, an $80,000 study commissioned by the town estimated the cost of such a relocation at $13 million, causing some Town Board members to back away from the idea.

Mr. Walter said he believes that once the town begins selling land at the Enterprise Park at Calverton it will have enough money to make those renovations to the armory without increasing taxes.

The supervisor said he doesn’t believe the state Supreme Court can force the town to send its arraignments to District Court because that court has no jurisdiction over town defendants.

Residents of all five East End towns voted in the 1960s against joining the Suffolk County District Court and the Suffolk County Police District and Mr. Walter says he believes only the voters can change that.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“It’s a pending legal action and should be addressed by [town attorney Martin Finnegan],” he said. Mr. Finnegan did not respond to a message seeking comment.

On Tuesday, however, Southold Town officials were discussing a proposal to expand the town’s justice court. One option would be to design a prefabricated modular courthouse behind Town Hall, but that comes with an estimated $3 million price tag. Other options include renovating the existing Town Hall or the Peconic Lane Community School.

In Southampton Town, the justice court was moved from Town Hall’s crowded basement in 2010 and relocated to two prefabricated buildings near the former landfill site in Hampton Bays. The new court complex cost $2.9 million.

In addition to the Legal Aid Society, six individuals are also listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Those individuals have been defendants in cases in the courts mentioned in the suit and were denied private conference space. One of them, Genaro Canel of Riverhead, claimed that information from a private attorney-client conversation in Sag Harbor Village Court was overheard by a police officer and later used against him.

“The risk that the substance of attorney-client conversations will be used against the defendant is neither a speculative nor a conjectural concern, it is a real and present evil,” claims the Legal Aid lawsuit, written by Legal Aid attorney Sabato Caponi.

The lack of attorney-client space in the Riverhead court is one of several problems that court has, according to a study conducted for the town last year in conjunction with the plan to renovate the armory.

Other problems cited in the report include inadequate security, non-secure movement of inmates through public spaces, inadequate jury space and lack of space in general.

Mr. Walter says he hopes to address those concerns through the armory proposal.

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