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Justice Obstructed

Crime's up in the wake of September 11 -- but the courts have slowed way down.

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The tabloid headlines have been visible for a couple of weeks now. SURGE OF SHOOTINGS IN CITY. PUSHY PANHANDLERS BACK IN FORCE. RETURN OF SQUEEGEE MEN. The Post even ran an editorial last week under the banner a NEW CRIME WAVE?

The obvious cause of the first bad news on the crime front in years (albeit a minor uptick) is September 11. Suddenly, cops had more urgent business than street crime and quality-of-life offenses. Police presence in the city has been overwhelming, but there've actually been fewer cops available to make run-of-the-mill arrests.

The tabloid headlines have been visible for a couple of weeks now. SURGE OF SHOOTINGS IN CITY. PUSHY PANHANDLERS BACK IN FORCE. RETURN OF SQUEEGEE MEN. The Post even ran an editorial last week under the banner a NEW CRIME WAVE?

The obvious cause of the first bad news on the crime front in years (albeit a minor uptick) is September 11. Suddenly, cops had more urgent business than street crime and quality-of-life offenses. Police presence in the city has been overwhelming, but there've actually been fewer cops available to make run-of-the-mill arrests.

Less noticed is that the criminal-justice system has slowed to a crawl. In the days and weeks following 9/11, the system struggled mightily, along with the rest of the city, to get back to business. There were trials that had to be completed, new ones that had to start, and indictments that had to be handed down.

But courts were inaccessible. Cops were otherwise engaged. Many lawyers and prosecutors had no access to their offices. Indeed, some of their offices no longer existed. And thousands of case files, depositions, motions, and other items in the enormous paper stream that keep the system flowing were destroyed in the attack. New York's Corporation Counsel, for example, which handles thousands of cases a year for the city, is still not back in its offices at 100 Church Street.

"Initially, the problems were extraordinary," says deputy chief administrative judge Joan Cary. "We spent weekends here trying to get cases on the calendar, but there were mistrials, and some defendants got a walk."

James Kindler, the chief prosecutor in the Manhattan D.A.'s office, says arrests since 9/11 are off by a third. "One kind of arrest we really hadn't been seeing was for drug sales, because the cops who do buy-and-busts were down at the Trade Center," says Judge Cary. In the Bronx, the dearth of criminal prosecutions has actually resulted in judges being reassigned to civil cases.

Some inside the system argue that things are beginning to snap back, particularly in state courts. "Everyone -- judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, cops, and jurors -- has really pulled together," says Cary.

And patrolmen and detectives are beginning to return to more normal tours of duty. But higher-level criminal activity -- the kind committed by more sophisticated perps, who are tougher to catch and who favor expensive lawyers -- is apparently another matter.

"The private criminal-defense community feels like it's dying," says noted Manhattan attorney Joel Rudin. "The FBI is not making cases in drug enforcement or money-laundering or fraud or any of the other kinds of crimes that require investigative work. Their focus is on terrorism."

Rudin is clearly not alone in his feelings. "I have at least a dozen clients who were the subjects of pending investigations," says criminal-defense attorney Joe Tacopina. "And the investigations have all gone by the wayside. Disappeared. And when I've asked about the status, I've been told the case agents have been reassigned because of September 11."

Agent Joe Valiquette of the FBI's New York office (which, with more than 1,100 agents, is the country's largest) says that while many agents were reassigned in the wake of the attacks, they're starting to return to other areas of investigation.

Andrew Weissmann, who is chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney's office for the Eastern District, agrees that things had slowed for a while. He also points out that his office was inundated with cases of people charged with issuing fake bomb threats and fake anthrax threats. Nevertheless, he too argues that momentum has returned and investigations other than those related to 9/11 are once again under way. "It'll be interesting to see what the lawyers will be saying two months from now."

One thing is certain. If crime is still going up and cases aren't being made, Mike Bloomberg and Ray Kelly -- not to mention New York's criminal-defense bar -- are in for a long, cold winter.


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