city court on Morton Avenue. Photo: John Whipple
Defense Never Rests
An overwhelming caseload and a revolving client list
leave Albany County public defenders struggling for air
bailiff has already given her bit on this being a court
of law and how everyone is to remain silent so as not to
disrupt the flow of justice, but it obviously hasnt
resonated. Its just after 9 AM on Tuesday at Albanys
Police Court on Morton Avenue, and courtroom No. 1 is abuzz.
courtroom is a big box, split roughly in half by a metal-and-glass
partition about 7 feet tall. Court clerks, police officers,
attorneys and the judge occupy one side, victims and defendants
fill a waiting area on the other. Roughly three dozen people
have already piled into the waiting area, filling seven
of the eight available wooden benches nearly to capacity,
and more are filing in. It seems that as soon as the courtroom
door closes it reopens and a few more people filter in,
bringing with them the din from the lobby. People are finding
seats, removing coats, rustling papers, scanning for attorneys,
whispering, occasionally laughing. On her side of the partition,
the bailiff sits on a barstool and glares at the crowdwide-eyed
and deadly serious, hoping her silence speaks volumes. She
is ready to pounce.
court clerk reads names from a sign-in list, and people
raise their hands like it’s homeroom. Once through the list,
she announces where they are and why they are here: This
is police court and you are before Judge Keefe. This is
not traffic court. That is down at City Hall. If you’re
supposed to see Judge Carter, you’re in the wrong place.
He is down the hall in courtroom No. 2. Most of the people,
it turns out, are in the right courtroom. Some are not,
and in a huff they leave. But even those who remain will
soon become irritated. They may have arrived on time or
earlier, hoping to return to work before lunch, but none
in the waiting area will be seen for a while. The court
has more pressing matters: out-of-town hippies clogging
the county jail.
Phish played the Pepsi last night. Many of their fans celebrated
by huffing nitrous oxide from tanks and balloons, which
basically cuts off the oxygen to the brain and numbs the
senses. That’s probably why they didn’t see the cops coming.
To handle all of the arrests there was a special three-hour
session of police court last night, and court has been in
session since 8:30 AM this morning, but the judge is still
arraigning hippies. A judicial jam session of sorts.
Shauna Collins, one of Albany County’s newest public defenders,
already had a hefty load of scheduled cases prior to entering
the court Tuesday morning. About 30 files awaited her appearance,
and now she’s got to deal with this: There are about 20
Phish defendants left, and almost all have applied for public
In a normal morning, Collins is busy: She’s refreshing her
memory of the day’s caseload from notes she’s scrawled on
manila envelopes from previous appearances. She’s making
her way across the waiting area to meet with a new client,
fending off a few eager others on the way. She’s speaking
with hardheaded kids who don’t mind going to jail, trying
to talk them out of it. On top of that, today Collins must
check with the nitrous defendants to see if they’ll accept
the district attorney’s deal—plead guilty to a charge of
disorderly conduct, pay a fine and leave. Most agree, and
the wheels of justice begin to crank.
Through a door to the side of the judge’s bench, a police
officer leads two handcuffed men to the inmate pen in the
courtroom. As he opens the door, a chorus of bangs and screams
floods the courtroom. A man waiting to appear is being detained
somewhere behind the courtroom, and obviously feels neglected.
“Hey! Hey! Hey!” the man screams in short bursts, trying
to get someone’s attention. Whether he got that person or
not, he has snagged the attention of everyone else in the
courtroom. The waiting area comes alive with muted conversation.
The bailiff sits up straight and gives her glare.
The doors close for a moment, muting the ruckus, and the
officer leads the two men to the holding area before heading
back to assist. As he opens the door, sounds from the invisible
scene flood the courtroom once more.
want 30 more days for in contempt of court?” a female voice
threatens, matching the screamer’s volume.
contempt for what?” asks the screamer.
acting like an animal,” the female voice shouts back. The
door closes. Smiles and arched eyebrows spread from behind
the partition, more laughter and chatter from the waiting
The bailiff comes out to address the waiting area. She looks
ready to kill. She gives her spiel again. “I know this looks
like a circus,” she concludes, nodding her head slowly,
knowingly, almost bowing. The thought lingers as she heads
back behind the partition. It’s 9:45 AM.
At about 11:05 AM, Collins thinks she has a free moment
and heads from behind the partition to speak with one of
her scheduled clients. Wearing a black pantsuit and pink
turtleneck, Collins rasies her brow and flashes a loaded
smile as she approaches her client.
want to know what they offered?” she asks. The belly of
her client, a heavyset black man wearing paint-spattered
blue jeans and a camouflage coat, heaves a bit in response.
days,” Collins says, her face wincing. The client throws
his hands out to the side in disbelief. He’s been charged
with trespassing, a violation of his probation. He doesn’t
want to go to jail. “I know you don’t want to,” she begins,
but is quickly interrupted.
Collins, could I borrow you,” the judge calls. She gestures
to her client and heads back to the bench. It’s now 11:08
AM. Collins and her client didn’t even spend five minutes
City court is considered one of the lower courts in our
country’s judicial system. These courts handle appearances
for minor crimes and violations—offenses punishable with
jail time but often negotiated to a fine, community service
or a treatment program. Rarely does a city court appearance
result in a trial, but these lesser crimes usually result
in four or five appearances before a charge has been dealt
Albany’s city courts are by far the busiest in the county.
Of the 9,414 individuals who appeared in city courts throughout
Albany County in 2002, approximately 7,576 went through
the city’s court, according to the state’s Office of Court
Administration. It is important to note that these figures
represent individuals appearing in court, not cases. Individuals
may have multiple charges within their file. Responding
to requests from city officials, the state Legislature created
a new city court position for Albany last year to deal with
the city’s ballooning caseload. The position was filled
in the November 2002 elections, and a new, third city court
judge started in January 2003.
In the county’s busiest court, Albany County public defenders
provide the overwhelming majority of defense services. In
2002, public defenders represented 5,063 of the 7,576 individuals
who appeared in the City of Albany’s lower courts, 67 percent
of the court’s entire caseload. While Albany’s overall city
court caseload appears to have declined slightly this year,
the number of clients represented by the public defender’s
office is on the way up. At their current rates, the public
defenders will have represented approximately 73 percent
of all cases appearing in Albany’s city court in 2003.
Currently, the county defender’s office employs seven attorneys
in Albany city courts. Six of those attorneys are in court
two or three days a week, and represent most of the clients.
The seventh attorney handles any clients charged with a
felony in Albany. One of the other six also takes on some
of these cases. Since felonies are not within the lower
court’s jurisdiction, those cases are usually arraigned
and shipped out to a higher court where they are handled
by a separate attorney.
Though the county public defender’s office could not provide
an exact figure for the number of cases each attorney handles,
based on the office’s projected 2003 caseload, the attorneys
represented an average of 782 individuals. That figure is
well above the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association’s
general standard that public defenders shouldn’t handle
more than 400 misdemeanor or 150 felony cases a year. Eugene
Devine, head of the county’s Public Defender Office, rationalizes
those figures by saying that not all of those cases go to
trial, but admits that the numbers are very high.
know we need bodies to fit those standards,” Devine says.
“These caseloads not only put a burden on us, but make it
difficult for our attorneys to provide good representation
for the clients as well. It’s like a steamroller in that
Earlier this year, the defender’s office hired two new attorneys
to deal with the burgeoning caseload. Collins, a 26-year-old
in her first year out of law school, has been with the office
since April. Like most of the office’s staff, she works
part-time as a public defender, two days a week, and spends
the rest of her time at a local private firm.
Collins is energetic and enthusiastic about her work as
public defender, idealistic even. To her, working as a public
defender is advocacy work, something important to her, something
she’s devoted time to throughout her adult life.
Shauna Collins, Albany County
public defender. Photo: John Whipple
public service,” Collins says, taking some time outside
of the courtroom to reflect. “These people have a right
to be represented and I tend to believe more in that than
in wanting to be a prosecutor. I’ve always, for lack of
a better term, had somewhat of a soft spot for helping people.
I think the DAs will tell you the same thing. They have
a soft spot for wanting to help the victims. My feeling
is these people have a voice too. I want to be their voice,
Collins admits that she is too-often speaking for too many
people, but adds that it’s just the nature of her job.
were talking about this the other day down in city court,”
she says. “I just think that we’re just so used to [the
pace] that it’s our life now. It’s what I do. I know it’s
going to be hectic and it’s going to be overwhelming and
there are going to be potentially 100 cases a day, so to
hear that number [400 misdemeanor cases per year], it just
seems to me like, wow, what would I do with all this time?
But you get used to those standards—[it’s] terrible that
we’re used to it, but. . . .”
Collins says she tries her best to stay on top of all of
her cases throughout the day, but frequent interruptions
make it difficult. The interrupted conversation with the
man in the camouflage coat was not an isolated incident,
always have one ear on one thing and one ear on the another,”
Collins says. “I don’t want my clients to think I’m not
listening to them, but I have to be ready to shift gears
at a moment’s notice. It’s difficult.”
The man in the camouflage coat is trying to get Collins’
attention. Roughly 25 minutes after their conversation was
interrupted, the client walks up to the partition to ask
the bailiff if he can speak with his attorney. Collins is
busy discussing cases with inmates from the county jail.
The bailiff tells the man to be seated. His attorney will
be with him when she gets a chance, the bailiff says. Shaking
his head, he heads back to his seat. He and Collins do not
speak again before the judge calls his name.
Nationwide, public-defense services have come under scrutiny
of late, and Albany County is no exception.
In observance of the 40th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright,
the Supreme Court case that established the right to legal
counsel regardless of ability to pay, the New York Civil
Liberties Union has been investigating public-defense services
in upstate New York. According to Chris Dunn, associate
legal director of the NYCLU, its first stop was Albany County.
had gotten complaints from people expressing concerns about
indigent defense services [in Albany County], and we got
them from a range of sources—people in the community, people
who are advocates,” Dunn says. “It is our belief that in
most counties the problem is they just don’t have the resources
they need to represent people properly. The vast majority
of public defenders are out there trying to do the best
they can, but they just have way too many cases, they don’t
have enough resources, and the clients suffer. That is something
that can’t continue in counties where that is happening.”
Over the past two months, the NYCLU has discussed the issue
with representatives from all facets of the county’s indigent
defense services: judges, attorneys, defendants and advocates.
Dunn says the initial charges were serious enough to warrant
such an investigation.
your entire day consists of sitting in court as the cases
are called and having three minutes of conversation with
the client before something happens,” Dunn says, “you know
no one could competently represent a client in those circumstances,
and that is a totally common scenario. I think it happens
every day. If you’re the defendant, that’s a big problem.”
There has been speculation that the NYCLU might file a lawsuit
requiring the state of New York to take more responsibility
for indigent defense. NYCLU’s parent organization, the American
Civil Liberties Union, and other indigent-defense advocacy
groups have been filing similar lawsuits throughout the
country. Currently each of New York’s 62 counties decides
how to provide indigent-defense services and pays for those
services with already stretched local property taxes. Public-defense
services in the state are frequently referred to as a patchwork,
and many think the system needs an overhaul. Despite the
lawsuit talk, however, Dunn wasn’t tipping his organization’s
are lots of solutions to these problems—they may be legislative
in nature, they may be administrative. There may be litigation,”
Dunn says. “But I don’t want to give the impression that
we are about to file a lawsuit right now, because we’re
not. We think there are serious problems with representation
for indigent clients in some of the upstate counties and
there may be lots of responses, one of which could be litigation.”
Devine says he has spoken with the NYCLU about its investigation,
and was told that his office was being investigated to see
how indigent-defense services were provided in the state’s
capital. Devine does not think Albany County is in straits
as dire as some rural counties in the southern United States.
Devine says he has heard of some counties so poor that they
had to issue a special tax to pay for the costs of a murder
would submit we’re better off than that,” Devine says.
Apparently, Albany’s city- court judges weren’t satisfied
with the number of public defenders in their courtroom.
Last month, judges Thomas Keefe, William Carter and Thomas
Eagan removed their black robes and donned lobbying hats
to inform the county Legislature of the need for more public
defenders in police court.
have spoken to the county legislature of the need for greater
public-defender staffing in our court,” Keefe says. “Essentially
we were there because of the situation we were having with
the calendars. . . . What we told the county legislature
[was] that we need one more three-day-a-week person immediately.
Providing [the public defender’s office] with that request
is the absolute minimum requirement.”
Apparently, legislators took note. Amending the 2004 county
budget Monday night, the legislature added an additional
$250,000 to the public defender’s office’s $2.6 million
budget for this year.
lot of our efforts here are to try and level the playing
field between defendants that have money and defendants
that don’t have money,” says Paul Collins (D-Albany), a
county legislator and chair of the legislature’s law committee.
“It doesn’t seem to me to be just because you’re poor that
you should have less of a chance in an adversarial system.”
Devine says that the additional funds allow his office to
hire three more public defenders in Albany city court, and
to place one attorney in the county jail four or five days
a week. The money will also provide the defender’s office
with updated case-tracking software, and will fund training
sessions for county public defenders. Devine says the additions
to his staff should quell any notion of the county being
named in a lawsuit regarding indigent-defense services.
we started out as a target, I don’t know,” Devine says.
“I was led to believe it’s part of a statewide effort to
get some numbers together. Regardless, if there was a problem,
we fixed it.”
Around 3:45 PM Tuesday, the calendar is winding down. A
sense of calm has fallen over the courtroom. The waiting
area has all but emptied and the judge’s voice echoes throughout
the chamber. A handful of inmates from the county correctional
facility are seated in the pen waiting to appear, and the
bailiff is yawning on her barstool. But the defense never
rests—Collins is being fired.
The client was arrested for sale of a controlled substance.
Collins has explained the options to her client: He can
either plead guilty to a lesser charge and take the deal
from the district attorney of 10 months in jail, or take
his case to trial, which could result in worse. But the
client doesn’t want to hear it. Still. He has appeared for
these charges before and the judge granted him time to decide
how he wants to move ahead. He has a tough decision to make:
one bad choice or the other. He obviously doesn’t like those
choices, so he’s shooting the messenger. He wants a different
not listening to me, your honor. I’ve asked her to modify
my bail and she hasn’t listened,” the client pleads. But
today’s isn’t a bail hearing. He hasn’t even placed a request
to lower his bail.
you have a decision to make,” Keefe says. “You have a right
to be represented by a lawyer. You do not have the right
to a lawyer who will give you the advice you want hear.
You do not have the right to keep coming in here and wasting
the taxpayers’ money.”
Collins’ arms are crossed and her weight is shifted slightly
away from her client as he pushes for a new attorney once
more. Keefe says that he will not honor the request for
a new attorney, and the defendant walks away shaking his
head. The judge adjourns the matter for a week. The incident
frustrates Collins, but she can’t let it throw her too much:
She has a few more cases to try. Her day isn’t done yet.
Nor is Charles McFadden’s.
McFadden, a 38-year-old Albany resident, has been in court
since 8:30 AM waiting for his twin brother to be called.
By McFadden’s account, his brother has been arrested five
times in the past six months, each time on charges stemming
from his brother’s caustic relationship with a woman. “She’s
no good for him,” McFadden says.
McFadden, who’s been to court for all of his brother’s appearances
over the past few months, is hoping that today will be the
day that his brother is released from the county correctional
facility to his care. Though the court says his brother
is mentally fit enough to stand trial, McFadden says he
is mentally unstable. He needs a good program and he needs
to stay on his medications. And he needs to stay away from
McFadden sat patiently as the hippies were arraigned. He
watched the clients who could afford private attorneys walk
out the door before lunch. He waited while Collins’ stack
of files dwindled, until there was only one left.
His brother is called at 4:06 PM, the moment McFadden’s
been waiting for all day. Now it’s the McFadden brothers’
turn for the justice mandated to them by the Supreme Court.
McFadden is allowed behind the partition to stand before
the judge with his brother. Unfortunately, there is little
new with the case. Collins is still searching for the right
program for McFadden’s brother; he’s burned through a number
in the past few months.
His brother’s case doesn’t last for more than three minutes
before it is adjourned for a few weeks. The McFadden brothers
exchange a quick hug before one goes back to county, the
other back home. Both will be back in court in a few weeks.
Maybe by then the county’s three new public defenders will
be in city court to ease the burden. Maybe a judge will
have forced New York state to take more responsibility for
indigent-defense services. Maybe Collins will have 25 instead
of 45 files that day. Regardless, McFadden will take the
day off from work, again, to sit and wait for his brother’s
next three minutes with the judge.