The scale of justice

Woodstock's town court makes do with little

by George Pattison
May 12, 2010 03:27 PM | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Space is scarce in and around Woodstock's justice court, from the car-clogged driveway leading to the facility's modest entrance at the rear of Town Hall to the compact courtroom itself, where on certain busy nights the number of defendants, court personnel, and spectators easily outstrips the seating capacity.

April 28, 2010, is such a night. The session starts as scheduled at 5 p.m., as it does on the third and fourth Wednesdays of each month, when the court hears penal law cases. (In alternate weeks the docket comprises vehicular and traffic cases, which get under way at 6 p.m.) Stationed in street clothes inside the tiny vestibule off the driveway, Woodstock's new police chief, Clayton Keefe, steers arrivals into the crowded courtroom. Among those entering are the 53 defendants scheduled to appear, one after another, on charges contained in 68 arrest records, some of which attribute multiple offenses to the same person.

While New York State's town and village courts (known as justice courts) do not try felony cases, they conduct preliminary processing, prior to indictment, of individuals charged with felonies. Following their indictment by a grand jury, such defendants face trial in county court. Those circumstances apply to some of the six county jail inmates who tonight sit - handcuffed and shackled, clad in orange jumpsuits and slip-on sneakers - in the courtroom's front-left row.

Presiding at the raised bench in the front, beneath the town's distinctive seal, is judge Richard Husted, one of Woodstock's two town justices. (Frank Engel is the other.) At the outset of his third four-year term, Husted politely but firmly imposes order on the potentially chaotic scene before him. He addresses defendants respectfully, privately observing that many are "having their worst day" but also acknowledging that the accused include some authentic bad actors.

Take, for instance, two of the inmates: a thin, thirtyish woman with lank, streaked hair and her alleged accomplice, a tall, graying man, apparently in his forties, who reportedly has at least three prior convictions on his record. In separate cases, each faces a laundry list of charges, including felony counts of grand larceny and burglary, related to the same incident: the theft of 12 guns and two guitars in the burglary of a Wittenberg Road residence. Their cases are continued to May 26, and they were returned to the Ulster County Jail. In another noteworthy case, a young male inmate, who is otherwise accused of breaking into businesses on Mill Hill Road, tonight is arraigned on multiple vehicular offenses, including DWI.

In most of the cases, however, matters are settled briskly. One of the town's court clerks, Linda Rose - the other is Kathy Longyear - keeps the docket moving. Misdemeanor guilty pleas result in fines; for defendants who cannot pay in full, on the spot, Husted negotiates a manageable payment schedule. A shifting cast of characters fills and vacates the room's complement of 40 stackable plastic chairs and three built-in seats, as an arriving spectator - a parent or spouse, perhaps, or a crime victim - squeezes past a departing onlooker.

Whispered conferences form and dissolve around the bench, beneath which the public defender, Dana Rudikoff, and the assistant county district attorney, Peter Matera, occupy separate tables. The judge's "chambers" - a minuscule room behind the bench, which serves as Longyear's office during normal working hours - are ill-suited for private conferences. Of necessity, such discussions sometimes take place in Town Hall's adjacent main room. Law enforcement is present in the courtroom, in the form of armed officers in uniform - about four each from Woodstock's police department and the corrections division of the county sheriff's office. One of the Woodstock officers, Jason Young, serves as this session's bailiff.

No glass

As its personnel have noted in the past, Woodstock's justice court is a cramped and potentially dangerous place. Only the vigilance of the officers in attendance, and a modicum of luck, keeps firearms and other weapons at least visibly out of the courtroom, although Husted has reported that loaded guns have entered the room and his life has been threatened. Court personnel assert that other disruptive incidents have occurred, with inmates punching walls and, in one instance, urinating on the floor.

Through a grant the court obtained a magnetometer that would detect metal objects carried by people entering the facility, but the device remains unused due to a lack of space. In order to deploy the magnetometer at the entrance to the court, the vestibule would have to be expanded and the device monitored by two officials. Neither measure has been budgeted by the town. A recent review by the state Office of Court Administration recommended other security-related steps, some of which were taken while others were not. The court removed glass-enclosed artwork from its walls, but has yet to bolt the plastic chairs to the floor.

Inevitably, the court's expressed needs intersect with the continuing debate over the use of town-owned buildings. Some participants in an April 27 discussion about the current and future use of the Community Center on Rock City Road proposed that Performing Arts of Woodstock, which stages theatrical productions in the main room at Town Hall, relocate to the Community Center. Other functions, including instructional classes and occasional community gatherings, also take place in the main room. The vacated space at Town Hall could then be outfitted for use by the justice court and the police and emergency dispatch departments, which, like the court, currently occupy cramped quarters at the Tinker Street edifice.

Town Hall contains a total of 11,000 square feet - 9,000 downstairs and 2,000 upstairs.

According to architectural plans for a renovation of the 73-year-old building, the court occupies 883 square feet, in the structure's northeast corner. The adjoining police and dispatch departments occupy 422.5 and 244 square feet, respectively. The main room, on the west side of the building, contains approximately 550 square feet.

Parking is exceedingly scarce at Town Hall, which also houses municipal maintenance equipment. Police and other town vehicles park in the driveway, in a handful of spaces at the rear of the building, and in garage bays in the western portion of the building. Police cars often must back into oncoming traffic on Tinker Street. The upstairs part of the building is inaccessible to disabled people and therefore unsuitable for municipal offices.

Community Center first

In a wide-ranging interview on May 4, Woodstock supervisor Jeff Moran discussed the town's options for the five buildings it owns (excluding the Historical Society of Woodstock's quarters on Comeau Drive): Town Hall, the Community Center, and three structures - the main building, the supervisor's cottage, and the maintenance garage - on the upper part of the Comeau property.

If a consensus supported a renovation of existing buildings, he said, the Community Center should take precedence over Town Hall, for logistical reasons. The Community Center is used, nearly dawn to dusk on a daily basis, by numerous groups for a variety of purposes, including the activities of the town's Senior Recreation Committee, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, instructional classes, performing arts events, and community functions such as the annual Thanksgiving dinner, Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration, and Town Board meetings. The building's various users would have no place to go during a renovation project that could vacate the building for six months or longer.

"I think that (a temporary eviction from the Community Center) would be deleterious to the well-being of our seniors," said Moran. "Their exercise, art, and other instructional classes are crucial to their engagement in a full life."

With the decades-long facilities debate still far from resolution, the supervisor plans to propose that the Town Board authorize funding for a comprehensive "architectural needs assessment" of its options, to be performed by a firm with the requisite expertise. That expertise would include a familiarity with a "sustainable" approach to architecture, whereby the operative principle is to build as little as possible, while making the most of what already exists. "We should cast a wide net for an experienced, objective firm," he said, adding that a firm with no direct connection to Woodstock might be preferable.

Moran expects to broach the idea at the next Town Board meeting, which is scheduled for May 11. As a first step, the town would issue an RFP (request for proposals) for an assessment of the town government's needs, consistent with those of the community, in the 21st century. In the supervisor's view, a needs assessment would provide expert guidance on a pivotal matter that has provoked division in the community. "The first question is, how do we all get on the same page?" he said. "In order to do that, we must get a very objective, very professional, hard look at our needs, requirements, and goals. If we get the right firm and the right document, everything will flow from there and we will understand the way forward."++

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