As technology changes, as society changes, the workload for individual assistant district attorneys in Genesee County continues to grow, District Attorney Lawrence Friedman told members of the County Legislature on Monday during the Public Service Committee meeting.
Friedman was joined by First Assistant DA Melissa Cianfrini to make the case for adding a new ADA position to their staff in 2019.
In 21 years as DA, Friedman said he's never asked for additional DA staff, but it's starting to become impossible for ADAs to juggle town courts, county court, case preparation, and specialty courts.
"Assistant district attorneys have been coming to me and saying there is too much going on and I acknowledge there is," Friedman said. "We’ve held off as long as we can but we need help."
On the technology front, evidence to review now includes police body-worn cameras, video surveillance -- not just from the city but from private homeowners and business owners, recorded inmate calls from the jail, and recorded stationhouse felony-case interviews.
That substantially increases the amount of time an ADA works on many cases.
"The thing is, it's time-consuming," Friedman said, speaking specifically about body-worn camera video. "We have to review all that video. When we’re lucky it can be a matter of minutes, but it’s not unusual to have literally hours of video because the police officers are doing their job and they’re running the cameras."
All the video related to a particular incident may include the hours that an officer is just working on his paperwork but every minute must be reviewed.
"The thing is, we can’t take the chance," Friedman said. "We’re turning this over to the defense. We need to know what’s on there. It’s a huge time drain."
Even the most seemingly mundane video minutes though can turn out to be valuable, Cianfrini said.
"We’ve saved statements because the police didn’t recognize, maybe, that was a statement that should have been noticed or it was a statement that was not made because of questioning, so reviewing body-worn cameras are fruitful and something that we can’t just skip doing," Cianfrini said.
Both Friedman and Cianfrini noted they are not complaining about new avenues for evidence, just noting how they change the nature of the job.
"All of these technological advances are positive things overall but they’re very time consuming," Friedman said.
The caseload for ADAs is also no longer limited to just town and county courts, what Friedman and Cianfrini referred to as justice courts. Many cases are now often referred to specialty courts, such as drug court, veterans court, mental health court, family court, and integrated domestic violence court.
Cases referred to those courts often last longer and involve more dedicated time.
For example, a specialty court case might include regular meetings with the ADA, defense, the judge, counselors, and others to discuss progress on each individual case and how the court should proceed that the defendant's next appearance.
The time spent on specialty courts also means there are fewer ADAs available to cover a town court when another ADA is tied up on a felony trial in County Court.
"It's getting to point where don’t have enough bodies to cover the courts we have," Cianfrini said "If I’m trying a felony case, we have a hard time finding the bodies to cover form me in my other courts while I’m trying a felony case in County Court and vise versa for everybody in the office."
The way laws and crime both have changed also takes up more time for ADAs.
Take DWI for example -- stricter punishments, whether it's losing a license through a criminal proceeding for life or getting a five-year suspension through the DMV on a DWI conviction, encourage more defendants to take cases to trial rather than settle for a plea agreement.
“So we’re having a lot more DWI trials, across the board, misdemeanors and felonies," Cianfrini said.
Even shoplifting ain't what it used to be. Crime rings make shoplifting cases, usually at the big-box stores on Veterans Memorial Drive, are more complex and more time-consuming.
“It’s not just the shoplifters who go in and swipe a mascara or a T-shirt," Cianfrini said. "These are organized shoplifting rings that come in and take thousands of dollars at one time. They have complex teams that they use to try and avoid detection. I just had a trial plead out today where three people stole over $3,000 worth of merchandise. They stole 12 Sonic Care toothbrushes and a ton of Nike apparel because that has a high retail value in the pawnshops and in the black market."
There's also been a lot of turnover the past three years in both the Sheriff's Office and Batavia PD. Friedman stressed all the new officers are outstanding individuals but they still, like anybody in a new, complex job, have things to learn. That means more time working with officers in the field for ADAs, such as Cianfrini.
"I get more calls because they want to do the right thing," Cianfrini said. "Those calls now take longer. Calls that were under five minutes now take longer. Sometimes I have to get up and do research in the middle of the night make sure they're accurate in what they’re telling me and that I’m getting them the best advice because it’s their first time dealing with a situation."
One of Friedman's ADAs is retiring at the end of the summer, which means replacing an experienced attorney with a new attorney who will also take time to train. He's warned the candidates that being an ADA isn't just a 9-to-5, weekends-free type of job.
"We were just explaining to a job candidate on Saturday, during an interview, you are expected to be in the office or in court between regular business hours, 8:30 to 5," Friedman said. "Then you’re going to be in justice courts in the evening, and you’re on call 24-7. That’s what these jobs are. Nobody in our office only works 37.5 hours a week. Not even close."