Erie County's top prosecutor, frustrated by the dismissals and acquittals in a specialized domestic violence court, has stopped prosecuting misdemeanors and violations in the court.
District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III calls the court "a failed experiment."
But judicial administrators support Erie County's integrated domestic violence court, and they are considering appointing a special prosecutor to handle the cases.
In the meantime, advocates worry about the message sent to domestic violence victims.
"I am concerned for victims whose cases have been transferred to the court and find there is no prosecutor to move the case forward," said Laura E. Grube, a coordinator with Child & Family Services Haven House, which serves victims of domestic violence. "They're going to feel the system is failing them."
Since its inception in November 2003, the integrated court has served 1,915 families involving 9,545 cases, according to the Office of Court Administration.
The specialized court was formed so that domestic violence victims would not have to appear before different judges in multiple courts to deal with separate criminal, family and matrimonial cases. The court enables one judge to hear all of the cases. Only those with cases pending in criminal and family or civil courts are referred to the court.
Supporters say the court allows the judge to become better informed about all of the cases in which the victim and defendant are involved and creates consistency in orders of protection.
"It is a practical, thoughtful and smart way to handle very specialized cases that are serious," said David Bookstaver, spokesman for the New York State Unified Court System. "The integrated domestic violence court is crucial to intervening before these matters end up on the front page as felonies."
But since Aug. 24, Sedita has not prosecuted misdemeanors and violations referred to the court. He continues to prosecute felony domestic violence cases in the specialized court as well as in other courts.
State Supreme Court Justice Deborah A. Haendiges, the integrated domestic violence court judge, ordered Sedita to her courtroom Wednesday to explain his refusal.
The judge called a misdemeanor assault case – referred to the court after Aug. 24 – that an assistant district attorney last week refused to prosecute on Sedita's orders. Again on Wednesday, an assistant district attorney refused to prosecute the case. The judge reserved decision on the case.
Sedita did not address the court, but Donna A. Milling, chief of Sedita's appeals bureau, told the judge that Sedita has submitted an affidavit explaining his position.
"I am not abrogating my duty to prosecute viable domestic violence cases," Sedita said in his affidavit. "I have repeatedly and consistently maintained that I will prosecute any misdemeanor-level domestic violence case filed in the local courts, and I have devoted substantial resources to do so.
"I will prosecute felonies and misdemeanors in the Erie County Court domestic violence part, as well as the IDV part, provided those cases are filed in accordance with the provisions of the criminal procedure law," Sedita said. "I cannot, however, prosecute cases that are blindly transferred by unilateral administrative fiat into the IDV part from the local courts, especially since the prosecutors assigned to those local courts can competently prosecute the cases there."
Nearly half of the criminal cases transferred to the integrated court are dismissed or end with an acquittal, compared with the 2 percent dismissal and acquittal rate in the 10 non-IDV superior courts, Sedita said.
Sedita said the 86 acquittals and dismissals in Haendiges' courtroom in the first six months of 2012 accounted for 86 percent of all such outcomes among all of the superior courts. He does not blame Haendiges or his prosecutors, saying that too many of the cases referred to the specialized court were "unviable prosecutions" that should not have been filed in the first place.
"The incredibly high dismissal/acquittal rate is directly attributable to the lack of professional case evaluation and screening," Sedita said in a letter to Erie County Judge Sheila A. DiTullio, the supervising judge for criminal matters in the Eighth Judicial District.
"Instead of being carefully screened by a professional prosecutor, cases are perfunctorily screened to the IDV part by IDV court staff, none of whom has any prosecutorial experience."
The inadequate screening results in "overcharged, unsustainable and bogus cases being filed," Sedita said.
"To add insult to injury, the prosecutor, and not the court staff member, is left with the responsibility to prosecute the so-called case," Sedita told DiTullio.
The integrated domestic violence court forces prosecutors to prosecute cases they would never have filed in superior court, he said.
"I want to put domestic violence offenders in jail," the prosecutor said. "This court, in my opinion, does not serve the interests of domestic violence victims."
Most cases in the court are misdemeanors and violations that could be more effectively prosecuted by prosecutors in local courts, Sedita said.
While supporters cite the court's convenience for victims, Sedita cites "multiple advocates" and "competing agendas" that his prosecutors confront in the specialized court.
"The convenience argument, in theory, sounds like a good idea," he said. "But that argument, in practice, turns out to be incredibly inconvenient."
In a typical criminal case, the prosecutor opposes a defense attorney. The prosecutors must prove whether a crime has been committed.
"In other words, an assistant district attorney deals with criminal law issues against a single opponent," Sedita said in his letter to DiTullio. "In an IDV case, the prosecutor often must contend with the criminal defense attorney, the complainant's matrimonial attorney, the defendant's matrimonial attorney and the child's law guardian. The prosecutor must also contend with a myriad of non-criminal issues which directly and indirectly affect the case."
He said his prosecutors should solely be concerned with the criminal prosecution, not the matrimonial litigation and mediation.
Sedita said it is not unusual for complainants to file criminal charges to create leverage in a matrimonial dispute or refuse to testify or suddenly become "afflicted with an acute bout of amnesia" once the desired civil settlement has been reached.
The district attorney also objected to assigning his prosecutors to the court in a letter to State Supreme Court Justice Paula L. Feroleto, the administrative judge of the state's Eighth Judicial District of Western New York.
"I can no longer appear in a combination civil-criminal-family-matrimonial court that essentially uses the threat of criminal sanction (the prosecutor as a boogeyman) to resolve non-criminal disputes," Sedita said in the letter.
Feroleto was not available for comment, but in a letter to Sedita, she said, "The Court … intends to keep Erie County integrated domestic violence part intact."
In an interview with The Buffalo News, Sheila W. Schwanekamp, project coordinator for the integrated domestic violence courts in the judicial district, said she was speaking on Feroleto's behalf in replying to Sedita's "boogeyman" and other comments. "The district attorney is not required to be present for the family and matrimonial parts of the IDV cases," she said.
Each case in the integrated court "retains its own integrity and rules of law and procedure," she said.
"There's no merging of cases," she said. "Each case is called separately. In most instances, the criminal case is resolved before the final resolution of the civil matters in the IDV court." Under the district attorney's plea policy, the case is either resolved by plea or set for trial after 45 days, she said.
All of the criminal cases that are transferred to Haendiges have been commenced in local criminal courts by the filing of criminal charges by police, who have made a determination that a domestic violence crime has been committed, Schwanekamp said. "None of the criminal cases are commenced in IDV court. And IDV courts do not in any way prevent the district attorney from investigating the charges that have been filed to determine the viability of the case," she said.
Schwanekamp disputed the accuracy of the dispositions of the integrated court's cases cited by Sedita but did not present her own figures.
"The integrated domestic violence court is not an experiment," she said. "This is a court that has been upheld by the Court of Appeals and was established to address issues of families in crisis."
The system has offered the District Attorney's Office numerous options in scheduling of cases to be respectful of his resources but at the same time maintaining the integrity of the court, Schwanekamp said.
"These options have all been rejected by the DA as of this time," she said, adding that the court system continues to be willing to work with Sedita to come to a resolution.
Grube praised Sedita's domestic violence prosecutors, calling them an excellent team. "The team that works with Judge Haendiges is strong, with an interest of victim safety in mind," she said.
"Right now, cases are coming in and not being heard, and I'm very worried about victim safety," she said. "This is always homicide-prevention work. We don't know which of our cases could end up in a worst-case scenario."
"I think the IDV court is effective," said Suzanne E. Tomkins, a professor at the University at Buffalo Law School and co-founder of the Women, Children, and Social Justice Clinic, formerly the Family Violence Clinic.
Resources from agencies are brought to one location, not just for victims but for those who are accused of the crimes, she said, and the specialized training for the judges also helps the children who are affected by domestic violence.
Tomkins said the dispute between Sedita and the court system presents an opportunity to review and improve the integrated court.
"I would hate to see such an important resource taken away from the families that are impacted by domestic violence before more consideration is given," she said. "If the district attorney has concerns, they should be looked at."