Albany Co. law enforcement goes ‘old school’; creates server to comply with new discovery law rules

Special Reports

ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — We’ve heard a lot about bail reform, but perhaps the most monumental change to the New York State criminal courts concerns the discovery law, which now demands that prosecutors turn over evidence within two weeks.

In order to comply with the new rules, the Albany County district attorney’s office is going “old school.”

“I would say that this issue was really a logistical nightmare,” said Heather Orth.

Heather Orth, Chief of Staff at the Albany County DA’s office, said evidence gathering is not like what we see on our favorite crime shows.

“Click a few buttons and massive screens, papers, and mapping. In reality. that’s just not how it is,” she said.

In reality, it’s a tedious process.

“You know, you have a crash at an intersection that involves an alcohol or a drug-related driver,” Bethlehem Police Cmdr. Adam Hornick said. “There’s times we get a dozen phone calls on those crashes.”

“There’s the body camera that’s housed on one system and the in-car camera on another system,” said Orth.

In the past, prosecutors were not required to share evidence against a defendant until a pre-trial hearing or even up until right before trial, which left the defendant’s attorney little time to examine evidence like cellphone records, security video and witness testimony. But under the new discovery law, which took effect on January 1, the prosecution must now turn over all “discoverable” evidence to the defense no later than within 15 days after the defendant’s arraignment. That includes weekends and holidays.

So how would law enforcement expedite the process? The law was passed under the state budget without any guidance or funding for extra staff or technology.

To solve the problem going forward, the Albany County DA’s office decided they had to look backward.

Prior to converting to a more high tech 911 system, Albany County had once relied on a fiber-optic network.

“This network was still there and it was being utilized, but only by about 10 percent.”

That 10 percent was being used to send recorded interviews from police departments to the district attorney’s office.

They wondered if it could be expanded to include other evidence. Commander Hornick was tasked with the job to find out if it could be done.

“It did work,” he said. “And they were able to get the information, review it, and see how it would then be forwarded to the defense attorneys.”

Investigators import all kinds of evidence such as in-car video into their own specific case files. Prosecutors and the defense attorney working on the same case can then view that same evidence.

Defense attorneys with the Public Defender’s Office, which represent more than 80 percent of criminal cases in Albany County, get a password to log in to each one of their cases. The DA’s office said they can also share the same information on a thumb drive for private attorneys.

For obvious security and privacy reasons, officers and investigators are not able to open files belonging to any other agency.

NEWS10 reporter Anya Tucker: “Would you like to see this across the state?”
Hornick: “Well, ideally, this is something that, in my opinion, was something that was managed by the state or the state set up a database so that everybody was using the same system. Really this is all about one thing and that is the victims and survivors of crime and that’s why we do this job, and we need to make sure that we are protecting their rights as well and that we are able to bring a quality case — the best case — forward to protect them about what took place in their lives.”

The Albany County Public Defender Office sent NEWS10 the following statement regarding the new server:

“It’s really a long time in coming that this information should be provided at an early stage of proceedings. That will be beneficial for both sides when they are preparing for a resolution to the case, whether it’s by plea or trial.”

Michael Feit, Director of Training Albany Co. Public Defender Office.

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