NY Extends Statute Freeze With Tool To Hold Pretrial Inmates

By Frank G. Runyeon
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Law360 (May 8, 2020, 10:58 AM EDT) -- Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended New York's freeze on the statute of limitations until June 6 in an executive order issued Thursday night, adding a COVID-19 exception to continue holding inmates without presenting evidence and allowing remote preliminary and plea hearings.

The governor's order further extended the tolling of court deadlines in civil and criminal cases for another month since his first order on March 20. But it added specific language to justify holding people without a preliminary hearing beyond the six-day maximum allowed by law, while also creating a way to hold those hearings electronically. 

Such detainees have not seen the evidence against them at preliminary hearings due to the fact that the hearings are not considered "essential" during the pandemic.

The governor's last-minute move left court officials and district attorneys in the dark about whether the clock would start on hundreds of pending criminal cases until 10 p.m. Thursday night — two hours before the previous order was set to lapse.

A state courts spokesman told Law360 on Friday that 325 arraigned inmates on Rikers Island in New York City would be directly affected by the governor's order, which creates both a new method to stymie detainees' attempts at seeking release on the grounds of unlawful delays and a way to hold safer virtual hearings to move those cases along more swiftly.

Specifically, the order allows prosecutors to argue that pandemic-related delays in holding a preliminary hearing constitute "good cause" to continue incarcerating the person.

Additionally, the order states prosecutors can demonstrate good cause to hold a person longer than 45 days without a grand jury acting "due to the inability to empanel a grand jury due to COVID-19."

The governor's order also allows inmates to enter a guilty or not guilty plea in an "electronic appearance." Such remote appearances had been specifically prohibited by existing law.

The adjustments target an area of concern for at least one New York state judge, who suspected Cuomo's earlier emergency order violated inmates' due process rights and warned of the dangers of suspending civil liberties in a crisis.

The Thursday-night executive order also extended rules protecting financially vulnerable tenants from eviction through August, and created a method for tenants to use their security deposits to pay rent.

During his Friday morning briefing, Cuomo announced that he would also extend the Child Victims Act look-back window, which allows plaintiffs of any age to sue their childhood abusers, shifting the deadline to file a lawsuit from Aug. 14 to Jan. 14.

However, no such "nonessential" lawsuits can be filed at the moment under the emergency court rules, so prospective plaintiffs will still need to wait to file.

--Editing by Alyssa Miller.

UPDATE: This article has been updated with reaction to the order and information on the Child Victims Act's extension.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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