Now, There’s a Lawyer Available
People arrested over Memorial Day weekend received something no defendant here has ever before been given: A guarantee of legal representation from the moment they are taken in to East Hampton Justice Court to be arraigned.
In a program financed by the office of the Suffolk County District Attorney, either Brian DeSesa of the Adam Miller Group or Carl Irace of Carl Andrew Irace & Associates, both experienced in the field of criminal law, will now be in court on weekends and holidays. The program, years in the making, began on May 27.
It was Mr. DeSesa’s turn that weekend. “It is definitely necessary, both for the defendant and for the court,” to have a defense lawyer present, he said after a busy morning of arraignments. Without an attorney in the room, he said, it falls to the presiding justice to explain the law where necessary, and defendants, left to fend for themselves, may fail to understand.
It has not been unusual, for example, that someone charged with driving while intoxicated, after the court has read out the charges, will blurt out, “I’m guilty.” In weekends past, the town justices, Steven Tekulsky and Lisa R. Rana, would frequently have to warn people without lawyers not to speak to the facts of their case, because arraignments are recorded and anything they say could and would be used against them.
On the holiday weekend, before Justice Rana took the bench, Mr. DeSesa spoke in private with each of the three men charged with drunken driving, and the subsequent proceedings, court observers agreed, went much more smoothly than before. A key question the court asks of every defendant is, “Do you want to be heard in respect to bail?” If the facts warrant, an attorney may then point out that the person has local ties and is therefore not a flight risk, that he or she is employed, or that this is a first arrest.
“You’re there to offer comfort,” Mr. DeSesa said. Defendants, particularly women who have never been in trouble with the law, are frequently in tears.
Both Mr. DeSesa and Mr. Irace have been on both sides of the aisle. Mr. DeSesa has worked in the county D.A.’s office and Mr. Irace for the Bronx D.A. Mr. DeSesa went on to work for Edward Burke & Associates for eight years before joining his current firm. Mr. Irace, who lost a bid for town justice in 2013, heads his own law firm.
“Driving-while-intoxicated cases are the most technical cases in the criminal justice system, other than murder,” Mr. Irace said on Sunday, after representing the weekend’s one arraignment. Having a lawyer to deal with the technical aspects of a D.W.I. arrest — challenging a traffic stop, for instance, or a breath test reading — may give a defendant a stronger case,
Mr. Irace is already familiar with the program, which was launched in Southampton last July. He recalled a case involving an accident on Sunrise Highway in which his client faced charges of drunken driving. The prosecution had asked for high bail, but, said Mr. Irace, after he reviewed her history and argued that she was not a flight risk, the court set bail at an amount her family was able to post. (The woman, Ulyana Yaremko, was ultimately indicted on multiple felony charges stemming from the incident, in which an East Hampton couple were seriously injured, and the case is now in State Supreme Court.)
No matter how good a job they do at arraignment, Mr. Irace and Mr. DeSesa will not be representing the defendant afterward. The county program, formally known as the Assigned Counsel Defender Plan, specifically prohibits the attorneys’ further involvement in a case, unless they have represented the person before.
The program has been 10 years in the making. It stems from a class action launched by the New York Civil Liberties Union in 2007 (Hurrell-Harring v. the State of New York). The suit singled out five counties: Suffolk, Ontario, Onondaga (Syracuse), Schuyler, and Washington, accusing them, among other things, of failure to provide defendants with counsel during critical stages of a case and of creating caseloads for court-appointed attorneys that were so onerous that proper defense was impossible to provide.
The case was in the courts for years, reaching the appellate level before it was settled, on Oct. 21, 2014, the day before it was to go to trial. The weekend lawyer program was an important part of the settlement, which also provided the Legal Aid Society with funding to send staff members to all weekday arraignments.
Daniel A. Russo, who administers the Suffolk County plan, stressed on Tuesday that his nonprofit organization thoroughly vets attorneys for the weekend responsibilities. Experience is an important qualification; an inexperienced lawyer can make a crucial mistake at the start of the process and doom a client’s case.
Where a lawyer lives is also important, said Dennis Brown, who runs the program, because of the distances on the East End between courthouses. The lawyers are on call all weekend long, and all day on holidays. They are paid $30,000 a year.