In response to work by Professor Elizabeth “Betsey” Nevins and students in the Hofstra Law Criminal Justice Clinic, Hon. Norman St. George ’88, the supervising judge of the District Court of Nassau County, changed several practices that denied state and federal rights to defendants charged with town code offenses.
“The project was inspired in part by Jana McNulty ’14, who was the first to recognize the issue when the clinic represented a defendant in Part 155,” says Professor Nevins, attorney-in-charge for the Criminal Justice Clinic. “Her first comment upon walking into the courtroom was, ‘Why aren’t there any lawyers here?’ ”
“These defendants fell through the cracks in a way that no one thought was a problem until our students noticed it, researched it, documented it and raised objections to it,” says Professor Nevins.
For five weeks late in the spring 2016 semester, Hofstra Law students in the clinic observed and recorded proceedings in the part which hears matters (primarily violations and misdemeanors) filed by town attorneys from Hempstead, Oyster Bay, Long Beach and North Hempstead. They also worked with Professor Nevins on research for the project.
Clinic students Lisa Capellupo ’16, David Kline ’16, Max Slone ’15 and Peter Vakarev ’16 formed the core team for the project, and Naraine Meade ’16, Scott Migden ’16, Alex Sanchez ’16 and Keegan Sapp ’16 also assisted with observing and recording court proceedings.
“These defendants fell through the cracks in a way that no one thought was a problem until our students noticed it, researched it, documented it and raised objections to it,” says Professor Nevins. “Because the clinic teaches students how to advocate for defendants both individually and collectively, we brought a critical eye to the ‘go along to get along’ culture in District Court.”
Professor Nevins combined the observations with research about the practices and, with the critical assistance of Judge A. Gail Prudenti, Interim Dean, met in the fall with Judge St. George, who agreed to change the courtroom’s policies.
The court has now made clear that pro se defendants need not meet with prosecutors before their case is called and has not only advised defendants of their right to counsel but also provided for the appointment of counsel for those who qualify.
“To me, this project was shocking — to see that such blatant violations were occurring at our local courthouse,” says Capellupo, who is now a deputy public defender in the Minnehaha County (South Dakota) Public Defender’s Office. “It’s heartening to know that what seems like such a small change can impact the lives of so many people.”
Professor Nevins adds, “This issue is just an example of the kinds of the administrative issues which affect clients — particularly poor ones — every day in District Court, but which are not subject to any rule-making analysis, litigation or other critique. The clinic will continue to raise challenges to administrative and other injustices against our clients both in the courtroom and in the courthouse.”