By Amaris Elliott-Engel
Of the Legal Staff
Court leaders have agreed that any defendants voluntarily surrendering on bench warrants won’t face contempt proceedings for the first two weeks of the First Judicial District’s new bench warrant court starting Monday, defense attorney Michael J. Engle said today.
Engle said he was one of many people meeting with state Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery on the new court Thursday.
Engle said that the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and other members of the defense bar were unsuccessful in getting the court to delay the start of the court by two weeks, but court leaders did agree to phase in contempt proceedings for defendants who voluntarily surrender.
However, defendants picked up involuntarily will face potentially contempt trials immediately, Engle said.
The FJD is starting a dedicated courtroom to hold contempt proceedings and bench warrant hearings for defendants who have failed to appear for prior court dates. Philadelphia Municipal Judge Joseph C. Waters Jr. will preside.
About 40 to 45 attorneys attended a training convened by the PACDL, the Philadelphia Bar Association’s criminal justice section and the Defender Association of Philadelphia, Engle said.
There are close to 100 attorneys who have agreed to take court appointments to handle the lists of fugitives in the court.
As the system is set up right now, there is no way to do a conflict check, Engle said.
The plan is to have lists of cases called at 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Engle said.
The afternoon list is supposed to involve the defendants in custody, Engle said. Court leaders have expressed an interest in having the bench warrant hearings held over video-link between the Philadelphia Prison System and the Criminal Justice Center, Engle said.
The defense community has raised the issue that mandating video appearances for defendants in custody “infringes upon the defense constitutional rights,” Engle said. “It makes it impossible for defense attorneys to meet with and adequately consult with the client.”
One idea to address that problem is to have the defense attorney go up to the prison in the morning and meet with the defendants in preparation for the afternoon list, Engle said.
But if the case proceeds into a contempt trial, the question has not been resolved if the lawyer should stay up at the prison and be there in person with his or her client or if the lawyer should be in the courtroom where the evidence is, Engle said.