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Watertown City Court Judges: suspects are arraigned in timely manner

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WATERTOWN — The two Watertown City Court judges Monday night disputed the notion that they do not complete arraignments of suspects arrested by city police in a timely manner on weekends.

Addressing the Watertown City Council Monday night, City Court judges Eugene R. Renzi and Catherine J. Palermo said they work on both Saturday and Sunday mornings to conduct arraignments to make sure suspects are not held in lockup all weekend at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building.

Not only do they follow state “goals and standards” of arraigning suspects within 24 hours, but the two judges insisted that 95 percent of all suspects are arraigned within 12 hours on weekends.

“I do think we’re doing a very good job at that,” Judge Renzi told council members.

The issue of timely arraignments came up on Friday when Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, said she plans to sponsor legislation that would resolve a custodial problem involving suspects arrested by city police.

Despite long-standing practice in Jefferson County, a state directive prohibits holding suspects arrested by city police in the county lockup with other inmates before the suspects have been brought before a judge for arraignment.

The custodial issue came to light last week after the state Commission of Correction informed Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns that unarraigned suspects could no longer be kept in lockup at the PSB. The change goes into effect on April 16.

Arraignments for city police arrests must be held in Watertown City Court as required by the state. But Judge Renzi said he did not know how that issue became intertwined with how quickly he and Judge Palermo perform arraignments on weekends.

As directed by the state Office of Court Administration, Judge Renzi also said the two judges would not be allowed to perform midnight arraignments. It would require more security to arraign suspects in the middle of the night, he said.

In a late-afternoon email to city officials, Judge James C. Tormey, the Fifth Judicial District’s administrative judge, also defended how the two City Court judges handle weekend arraignments.

“The Court Administration has set up arraignment processes in the city courts, and those are available seven days per week and holidays in every city throughout the state of New York, including the city of Watertown,” Judge Tormey wrote.

After the meeting, Judge Palermo stressed that either she or Judge Renzi works on Saturday and Sunday mornings to arraign suspects.

Judge Renzi told council members he would like to further discuss the arraignment issue with council members, so he could explain how it works. Councilman Joseph M. Butler Jr. said he “welcomed” a future meeting with the two judges.

County and city officials were left scrambling to find out the reason the state is now telling the city and county that arrestees who have not yet been arraigned may not be held in the county jail.

On Friday, Mrs. Russell said legislation would spell out swifter arraignments, as is the practice of town and village justices. The move would mean city justices would have to be available at all hours of the day and night.

Since the PSB was constructed in 1992, city police suspects have been detained there pending arraignment, sometimes from a Friday night until court opens Monday morning. That happens only when suspects are drunk or on drugs, since they would not be competent to attend arraignments in those conditions, Judge Renzi said.

During a Jan. 30 meeting about staffing levels at the jail, state Commission of Correction officials told county officials that the way city suspects were held at the jail violated state corrections law, according to city and county officials.

After the meeting, City Attorney Robert J. Slye said he and Jefferson County officials “are working on it together cooperatively” to resolve the issue.

The city has used half of an intake/holding area at the PSB. The holding area, which comprises two single cells capable of holding two or three people and a larger group cell, is supervised by county corrections officers. Over the past 12 months, city police have brought 885 pre-arraignment suspects to the PSB, according to Mr. Slye.

In other City Council business Monday, Margaret M. Puccia was named the new deputy city clerk, replacing the retiring Elyse A. Frezzo. Ms. Puccia will be paid an annual salary of $35,000.

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