If you’re anything like us (or the rest of America), you often peruse Netflix to find the latest releases and most interesting movies to check out. Recently, Netflix came out with a new documentary series, called TIME: The Kalief Browder Story. This is not a review, although I do recommend you check it out. It’s a more in-depth look at one of the laws that made Kalief’s story so frustrating.
Essentially, Kalief was a 16-year old black male who was arrested for allegedly stealing someone’s backpack. Through a series of failed investigations and police missteps, Kalief was held on bail and ended up spending 3 years in Riker’s Island – most of that in solitary confinement – before he ever got a chance to stand trial. Granted, he was offered a chance to plead guilty to a felony and get out of jail – but Kalief maintained his innocence, and the clock kept ticking. His case was ultimately dismissed. There’s a lot to unpack in that scenario, but the focus today is on what is called the “Ready Rule” in New York.
Every defendant has the right to a speedy trial in all criminal prosecutions, according to the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution. There is no hard and fast rule about what a speedy trial is exactly, although there has been a good amount of case law examining the issue. Essentially, it boils down to case-specific facts and circumstances for the court to determine whether the Sixth Amendment was violated. If it was, then the State automatically loses their case. New York law is a bit more specific: Section 30.30 of the Criminal Procedure Law says that trial must occur within 90 days for a Class A Misdemeanor, 60 days for a Class B, 30 days for a violation, and 180 days for a Felony. It sounds simple, right? It’s not. In New York, the clock can actually stop running, and each day that passes does not count as one of the days for a speedy trial. Technically, a case could be hundreds of days old from the date of arraignment, but may still be less than 90 days for purposes of the “30.30 rule,” as New York practitioners affectionately call it.
In order for a prosecutor to be “ready” for trial in New York, they simply have to show that, in theory, a witness can be at court and testify within a reasonable period of time. Once the prosecutor claims this (even if they have not actually spoken to any witnesses), the clock stops ticking. Of course, there are some benefits to the defense with this rule – more discovery can occur, defense attorneys can file more motions to narrow evidence, and conduct their own investigations. But it does not help the innocent, poor people who wait in prison for their court date because they refuse to plead out and cannot afford bail.
In Kalief’s case, trial was actually set multiple times – but various excuses meant that he never got to have a hearing – even when the excuses from prosecutors piled up, week after week. Vacations, sick children, other trials, etc. all meant Kalief had to stay in prison with violent peers and in excruciating solitary confinement for years. Of course, this would appear that the state is not ready, and the clock keeps ticking. But in New York, a prosecutor can serve a certificate of readiness which stops the clock. They can do it the very next day after they have told a judge they are not ready. The prosecutor can also request time if they have already filed a certificate of readiness, such as “The People request two weeks,” which may turn into two months or more.
At least one case has tried to stop this manipulation of the Sixth Amendment in New York, which has ultimately only led to confusion over the law. But, courts in New York are chronically crowded, with overworked judges and attorneys unable to schedule most trials in a reasonable time period. The sad truth is that defendants will likely continue to spend time in a violent and scary place, even if they are innocent, because they cannot afford bail, and the system is flawed in fatal ways.