- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - The New Hampshire Judicial Branch wants to streamline how felony cases are handled, saving time and money and overhauling a process that dates back to when judges rode horses to court and grand juries convened only twice a year.

The bill has the support of most law enforcement officials, but some prominent defense lawyers say it could hurt defendants by doing away with most hearings to determine if there’s evidence to proceed to trial.

The Senate last month passed a bill that would have all felonies filed at the Superior Court level, bypassing District Court where they currently get their start. Those cases, judicial officials say, now can linger at the district level for two to five months before being transferred to Superior Court for trial.

A number of defense lawyers are strongly opposed to the bill, saying it also eliminates defendants’ right to a probable cause hearing on the evidence against them.

“Probable cause has been, and is now, a check on the power of the police,” Michael Iacopino, past president of the New Hampshire Bar Association, told members of the House Judiciary Committee last week. He said such hearings have been guaranteed by law since the 1850s. “It’s an adversarial process with cross examination. It shines a little bit of light on a case when someone’s life is on the line.”

Tina Nadeau, chief justice of the Superior Court, said the “Felonies First” process will lead to cases being evaluated and resolved more quickly.

“We don’t ride horses to court anymore,” Nadeau said at a Senate public hearing last month. “It’s time to look at what our process has been for more than 100 years.”

The proposal pending before the House Judiciary Committee would give trial judges the authority to decide if a probable cause hearing is warranted. Judges now routinely set a date for a probable cause hearing during a defendant’s first appearance in District Court, although 85 percent of defendants waive that hearing.

Bill Raftery, an analyst at the National Center for State Courts, said several states have a two-tiered system for handling felonies, but said New Hampshire is one of the few where a statute dictates the process. Other states, including Vermont and California, have only one level of trial court where all cases go.

Judicial officials say the streamlined process would reduce the time between arrest and trial from the current 10 to 13 months to between four and six months.

Enfield Police Chief Richard Crate, head of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, testified in favor of the bill. He said the affidavit police submit to a judge to justify an arrest warrant should eliminate the need for a probable cause hearing. Crate said having officers travel to court for probable cause hearings that are often waived after they get there “is a waste of everybody’s time.”

Strafford County Attorney Tom Velardi agrees.

“The police are going to save money by having officers not in the courtrooms, but where they’re supposed to be - on patrol,” Velardi said.

Nadeau said the change will mean another savings: The roughly $100 a day counties pay to keep defendants jailed while they await trial.

Although many private defense lawyers oppose Felonies First, Judicial Council Executive Director Chris Keating - who oversees the state’s public defender system and other legal services for the poor - supports it.

“If the public defenders don’t seem to have much problem with this and the private does, you can certainly draw some inferences on why that is,” Velardi said.

Seacoast lawyer Andrew Cotrupi said last week he thinks Felonies First will reduce the number of felonies being resolved at the district court level, where he said minor felonies such as bad check charges and possession of one or two narcotic pills are quickly bargained down to misdemeanors.

“Superior Court is going to get inundated with an enormous amount of low-end felonies,” he said.

The Judiciary Committee has not scheduled a vote on the bill. Rep. Robert Rowe, committee chairman, said a sub-committee will take it up Thursday.

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