Swanson Makes Case For Staff, Funding

Patrick Swanson

Chautauqua County District Attorney Patrick Swanson is asking state legislators for funding to help implement state-mandated changes to discovery set to take effect Jan. 1.

Swanson joined several district attorneys from around the state at a seven-hour state Senate Codes Committee hearing on the matter Monday. The changes, approved as part of the state budget in April, mandate that prosecutors hand over evidence to defense attorneys within 15 days of an arraignment. Under the law, that evidence also includes a slew of new “discoverable” material, including the names and contact information of any person with information about a case and all electronic recordings related to an incident.

The district attorneys argue that without additional staffers and upgraded technology, the reforms would face a series of internal hurdles, district attorneys warned the Senate Codes Committee during Monday’s hearing in Manhattan. The increased pressure could inadvertently cost prosecutors cases, and, if material is not properly reviewed and redacted, witnesses and other parties could be put in danger, they said.

“It’s interesting to hear some of the questions,” Swanson said. “I don’t think there’s anyone sitting at this table who doesn’t intend to fully comply. I don’t think that’s ever been a thing discussed amongst the 62 district attorneys in this state. We all fully intend to comply with the law. That’s what we swear to do. But there are limitations as to what we can do with what we have and they are very real.”

Swanson opened his testimony by acquainting senators with Chautauqua County, important because Chautauqua County currently does not have a state Senator since the resignation of former state Sen. Cathy Young earlier this year. The Chautauqua County District Attorney’s office has a local share budget of $1.7 million from the county’s local share budget of roughly $61 million.

The office has handled more than 1,000 felony cases in each of the last three years with a staff of 10.5 attorneys, five legal secretaries, one executive assistant, one full-time investigator, one part-time investigator and three victims advocates.

The county’s 10.5 assistant district attorneys appear in 39 separate courts, many of whom have non-lawyer judges and deal with nine law enforcement agencies in a county that does not have its own forensic lab, medical examiner or locally located trauma center.

Since taking over as county district attorney in 2016, Swanson said he has been implementing paperless case management and working to be in the best changes to handle the state’s changes when they take effect Jan. 1.

Swanson said staffing concerns aren’t only a problem for his office. Area police departments are similarly understaffed, and the District Attorney’s Office will be relying on those undermanned departments to meet the state’s discovery rules changes.

“But I think what hasn’t been said yet is that we are going to be wholly reliant on agencies that the legislation deems to be under our control in getting this evidence to the defense lawyers,” Swanson said. “We will rely on our local police departments to get us everything in their case file. We will rely on them to get us all of the police radio runs that are taking place during a given case. We are going to rely on them to make sure they’re properly tagging body cam footage. That reliance on them is the thing that concerns me the most.”

There was no money in the state budget to implement the discovery changes, and district attorneys said Monday it is likely $100 million is needed statewide. Some district attorneys also asked to either delay the changes’ start date or make the changes take effect only for felony cases so that a system can be worked out and then applied to misdemeanor cases.

Swanson said his plea for additional funding from the state came with the realization that additional county money is not likely to be approved as part of the county’s budget process. Swanson told senators that he has asked for an increase of $300,000 in the Chautauqua County District Attorney’s Office budget for 2020 to hire an additional assistant district attorney, a paralegal and a part-time investigator but has been told by County Executive George Borrello that Swanson’s office will not have a requested paralegal included in Borrello’s proposed 2020 county budget.

“In preparation for the new law I’ve proposed an increase of $300,000 knowing that I’m probably going to get nothing,” Swanson said. “I need $1.5 million. And the reason I say that is my local share budget is $1.5 million. There is another county in New York state that has a population just slightly larger than mine and the number of felonies in their county is just slightly higher. They have 24 lawyers, their budget is more than double mine. We are doing as best we can right now to deal with our caseload. But I put together a budget that increases 16 percent and I’m going to be told no.”

Some district attorneys have offices big enough that a county district attorney can delegate compliance with the state’s speedy discovery rules to a staff member. Swanson said there is no such staff member in Chautauqua County. Instead, he has been figuring out how the county can comply.

“We are completely having to change our case management, how we’re dealing with attorneys because we have a lot of older attorneys who don’t even have email,” Swanson said. “Police departments have to be educated as to the new requirements. It was interesting to hear DA Flynn talk about the units that he set up. In an office like mine there is no unit or department or bureau, I do it all. I do all that training. I go to the police departments. I talk to them about what they need to do. We’re doing it right now with one of our smallest police departments — they have two full-time cops and two part-time cops. We are doing it right now with them but I had to go there and actually teach these officers how to work with our office digitally to make sure that we were exchanging this stuff.”

State Sen. Jamaal Bailey, D-Bronx, and chair of the Senate Codes Committee, thanked Swanson for making the trip from Chautauqua County to Manhattan for the hearing.

“I know the state of New York pretty well, but I don’t know every nuance that comes with it. So it’s important to hear that you’re the trainer, because my question was going to be about training. What efforts are you making, or what efforts are you going to make as an officer to implement, and you’ve kind of answered it, that you’re going out there and doing the footwork yourself. That’s appreciated and it’s an insight into what we at the state should be looking toward doing.”