Taking off the ‘Blindfold Law’ in 2020

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Photo by WP Paarz via Flickr.

New York is one of the toughest states in the nation for criminal defendants to be able to obtain the prosecutor’s evidence against them, with The Marshall Project calling New York’s laws aiding the prosecution “some of the most restrictive in the nation.”

One law in particular, which defense attorneys have called the “blindfold law,” gives the prosecution the discretion to wait until the start of a trial to turn over evidence to the defense.

This leaves many defendants awaiting trial feeling like they’re in the dark, leading them to accept a plea deal without knowing if there’s any substantial evidence against them, the Gothamist reports.

But a law passed in April of this year states that in January 2020, “both prosecutors and defense attorneys will have to share all “discoverable” materials within 15 days of arraignment,” the Gothamist and The Marshall Project detailed. Now that 2020 is only a few weeks away, the spotlight on the issue has intensified.

The “discoverable” materials include showing the defendant witness statements, police body camera footage, and DNA tests.

Plea deals taken because of the “blindfold law” are so common that in 2018, only 5 percent of indicted NYC felony cases went to trial, “and just 2 percent of all cases including misdemeanors [went to trial], according to data from the Office of Court Administration that was analyzed by the Center for Court Innovation,” which the Gothamist reports.

This change in prosecutorial handling of materials and evidence makes many believe that there will be more trials in New York City come 2020, according to the Gothamist.

To fund the imminent increase in the number of trials, the city plans to give an additional $75 million “to help the police department, public defenders, and prosecutors meet the law’s new requirements, with almost half that amount going to the district attorneys’ offices,” the Gothamist reports.

Even though district attorneys’ offices are getting the bulk of the money, all five borough district attorneys have expressed problems they have with the new law in having to hand over materials, the NY Daily News reports.

Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez told NY Daily News reporters, “If you talk to any assistant district attorney, they will tell you that one of the first questions they are asked by victims and witnesses is: ‘Will the defendant know who I am?’ ‘Will they know where I live?’ ”

With this new materials law, prosecutors won’t be able to assure witnesses that their identity will be protected, “even in the case of grand jury testimony, which the new law will now require be disclosed,” according to the NY Daily News.

The borough’s DAs are also claiming that processing evidence and materials within 15 days will be expensive to implement because they’ll need access to crime labs, body camera footage, and databases with a nearly two-week turnaround time.

However, with these new measures in place, many defense attorneys are looking forward to 2020.

“I can advocate now for my client, which is what my job is,” Chris Pisciotta, the attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s Staten Island trial office, told the Gothamist. “And more often, based on my experience, I’m able to end up with a just and fair resolution of the case without going to trial.”

Pisciotta said the new law will accomplish its goal of ensuring people know their rights and won’t feel pressured to plea.

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