In the latest salvo in an ongoing imbroglio between an upstate district attorney and a part-time town justice, an acting Supreme Court justice has ordered the town justice to provide the prosecutor with an audio recording of proceedings in the municipal court.
Justice Cathryn Doyle (See Profile) gave Kinderhook Town Justice David Dellehunt 10 days to give Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka a copy of the recording and to submit a copy for transcription.
“To have a transcript produced from an electronically recorded matter, any person, including but not limited to, a litigant, reporter or nosy neighbor, may request that a copy of the disk be sent to a transcription service chosen from an Office of Court Administration approved list,” Doyle wrote on Dec. 26 in Czajka v. Dellehunt, 5395-12, in ordering an audio disk of the proceedings to be reproduced.
With court proceedings increasingly recorded digitally, rather than by a court reporter, transcripts are produced on demand for a fee. However, the Office of Court Administration (OCA) does not normally make the actual recording available, as Doyle did in this case. She found “no legitimate reason” to deny Czajka’s request for a copy of the audio disk, noting that “transcribers are human and are not beyond making a mistake in transcription.”
OCA, unaware that Doyle had already issued her order, submitted a letter the following day asking to be heard on the issue and requesting a two-week delay. In the Dec. 27 letter, Deputy Counsel Lee Adlerstein told Doyle that “it is not yet clear” why the Kinderhook town court denied Czajka’s request.
“However, the remedy sought in the petition—provision of a copy of the recording itself—is contrary to court practice and policy, and would give rise to substantial operational and fiscal problems for the courts,” Adlerstein said in his letter.
Doyle’s decision and OCA’s belated attempt to intervene stem from a feud between Czajka and Dellehunt that is apparently rooted in the district attorney’s policy on the adjudication of traffic cases.
Czajka, who had served as Columbia County district attorney between 1987 and 1995 and then as county judge, successfully sought election to his prior post in 2011.
Shortly after resuming office, he notified all town and village justices that his office would prosecute all cases, including traffic matters, in their courts. Previously, traffic cases were prosecuted by district attorneys in some municipalities, the ticketing police officer in others and the town attorney in some.
“Before January, motorists were treated extremely differently depending on the mile marker at which they were stopped, the color of the police officer’s uniform and the judge before whom they appeared,” Czajka said in interview. “When I assumed control, I made more than a few people unhappy, which I am kind of used to.”
Several judges, including Dellehunt, took exception to Czajka’s policies and what they viewed as an improper attempt by the district attorney to make sentencing decisions. A debate also ensued over whether the district attorney can withdraw a case after an accusatory instrument has been filed and whether a court can, or must, dismiss the matter because the district attorney declined to prosecute.
Dellehunt, in People v. Chai , 37 Misc3d 1203(A) (2012), held that a court cannot dismiss charges on a district attorney’s declination. That position is seemingly supported by a memo Third District Administrative Justice George Ceresia Jr. issued on May 25. However, Columbia County Judge Jonathan Nichols recently held that the district attorney has discretion to pursue or not to pursue a case, and the court has the “inherent power” to dismiss on the district attorney’s declination (NYLJ, Dec. 13, 2012).
After Czajka declined to prosecute some vehicle-and-traffic cases and Dellehunt nonetheless scheduled trials, the district attorney asked the Kinderhook judge to recuse himself from all criminal and traffic matters in Columbia County. Czajka accused the judge of bias and animus; Dellehunt denied he harbored any animus or bias and refused to recuse himself.
The matter before Doyle arose from an Oct. 2 Kinderhook Town Court session, when Dellehunt presided over dozens of matters and Czajka sought a record of the entire evening’s proceedings.
Dellehunt, who has expressed concern that some of the matters may not be public if the charge was dismissed and/or personal medical issues were discussed, has retained an attorney, David Rowley of the Albany firm of Cooper Erving & Savage. Rowley said Dellehunt intends to appeal.
OCA spokesman David Bookstaver said that if Dellehunt does seek appellate review “it is likely that the Office of Court Administration would join in his application.”
@|John Caher can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.