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Beyond bail reform, Southold bracing for how reforms affect code enforcement

While a debate rages on in Albany over new sweeping criminal justice reforms, Southold Town officials are bracing for how those changes will impact cases in Justice Court.

“It actually is going to affect the way we do code enforcement at a certain level,” town attorney Bill Duffy told members of the Town Board at a work session last Tuesday.

In addition to bail reform, the new law requires evidence in a case to be disclosed on a much stricter timeline of 15 days and expands discoverable materials to include names and contact information for anyone with relevant information about a case, recordings and other materials. It’s meant to eliminate evidence being withheld and help defendants prepare a defense before considering a plea deal or opting for a trial.

While criminal cases are transferred to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, most cases adjudicated in town Justice Court are quality of life issues, including code enforcement violations.

The town currently permits residents to report code enforcement issues confidentially.

“On the website, we state that we will not disclose anybody’s name pursuant to [the Freedom of Information Act,]” Mr. Duffy explained. “People have been using it presuming anonymity.”

Since the new statute requires complainant names to be disclosed as part of discovery, Mr. Duffy wants to issue a disclaimer to anyone filing a complaint in person or online. Complaints with no name attached to them would still be permitted — and thus nothing would be available to disclose in court.

“In essence, we’re promoting anonymous complaints,” Councilwoman Sarah Nappa said. “If someone has a valid complaint, they shouldn’t be afraid to put their name on it.”

She argued that anonymity has created an uneven system of enforcement.

But in a small town, Supervisor Scott Russell said, code enforcement is largely complaint-driven.

“Neighbor-to-neighbor stuff is tough,” he said, contending that the complaints are helpful. “You can’t go out and have code enforcement walk and knock on every door and look at 16,000 houses. You can’t do that without declaring a police state.”

Mr. Duffy declined to quantify how many code complaints are later tried in court, but said they are typically resolved before reaching that point. “We do strive for compliance first,” he said in an interview, adding that he thought eliminating anonymous complaints would be “detrimental” to code enforcement.

He said the 15-day restriction will increase the workload in the town attorney’s office. “It does put an extra burden on our office to produce the [documents] and be ready for trial,” he said. “Most of the time, cases work themselves out so you don’t do discovery. Now, we’re going to have to have discovery ready.”