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New criminal checks on criminal case witnesses rile firefighters, responders

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Fatal crash

A heavily damaged pickup truck is seen on its roof on the northbound off ramp at Exit 25 as police and emergency responders close Route 8 in Chester. One person was killed and another injured when a truck whose driver was fleeing from police slammed into another vehicle. Under new criminal justice laws starting Jan. 1, first responder backgrounds will be under scrutiny in criminal cases. 

Some local fire departments are objecting to a new requirement in state criminal justice laws that take effect Jan. 1 that requires they and other “potential” criminal case witnesses submit to criminal background checks, concluding it is an invasion of privacy.

The law will require that prosecutors have criminal history reports completed for anyone who may be witness in a criminal case. That means firefighters, emergency medical technicians, nurses and anyone else who had contact with a victim or defendant or witnessed a crime will have reports run on their conviction history, which will then be passed on to defense counsel and their clients within 15 days of the arrest.

First responders and medical personnel have the most frequent contact with crime victims and defendants so they have been the first to feel the effects in recent weeks as 2020 approaches.

To submit a criminal history report, the law enforcement agency will need personal information such as dates of birth, home addresses and phone numbers from potential witnesses, which some are concerned will get into the hands of the wrong people when provided to criminal defendants and their lawyers.

It has resulted in at least one Warren Country fire department deciding it will not release personal addresses and phone numbers for its members, while others weigh their options. Glens Falls Hospital staff has also informed prosecutors that contact information to be provided for for its staff will be the hospital address and phone number, according to Warren County officials.

Warren County Emergency Services Coordinator Brian LaFlure said many first responders are angry about what they see as an invasion of privacy, and a requirement that will create more work for volunteer agencies. Someone will have to track who was at an emergency scene, and then deal with the subsequent requests for personal information.

“They’re very upset about it,” LaFlure said. “Some fire departments have taken the stance that they will give out names and that’s it.”

Evidence rules

The requirement is part of the new evidence rules that are designed to improve the access of evidence for criminal defendants and their legal counsel days after their arrest. They have been praised by defense lawyers but panned by police and prosecutors, particularly since the state has provided no funding for large volumes of additional work that were created. Warren and Washington counties had to hire additional staff to deal with the new requirements.

Prosecutors have long had to turn over criminal history reports for witnesses they plan to call when a case goes to trial. The change now is they will have to run the reports and turn them over for all potential witnesses within 15 days of an arrest, whether a case is headed to trial or not.

Leaders of the Chester Fire Department questioned the new practice when they were contacted in recent weeks as the Warren County District Attorney’s Office prepares for trial in the case of Skyler Crouse, the man who faces manslaughter and assault charges for the September chase and crash that claimed the life of Brant Lake resident Joseph Turcotte.

The crash happened in Chester, and more than a dozen firefighters responded to the scene. The vast majority will not be called to testify even if a trial is to occur.

Chester Fire Dept. Capt. Ralph Bartlett, a retired Warren County sheriff’s sergeant, said he was surprised and concerned when he learned about the change in recent weeks when State Police reached out seeking personal information for the Chester Fire personnel involved at the Sept. 26 crash scene.

He said the department’s membership discussed the issue, and decided that only names, ranks and the fire station address will be released.

But the department was also researching its legal obligations, and will do what is needed to make sure that criminal cases are not hurt based on objections to the policy.

“This is going to create a lot of work,” Bartlett said. “We’re going to have to track who goes on every call, and create a document for it.”

Word spreads

Word of the new requirement has been spreading among the county’s fire departments. Bolton and Queensbury Central firefighters were also weighing their options when asked to turn over personal information. LaFlure said it was discussed at a county fire commissioners meeting, and Bartlett said other departments have asked for copies of Chester Fire Department’s policy on the request.

Bartlett said he had been in contact with Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY), which was researching firefighter options under the law change.

The organization’s director of outreach, Gerald DeLuca, said the agency's "initial interpretation is that there should be no substantial changes to the type of information departments are required to provide in response to requests for information on crime scenes and law enforcement events they responded to."

"We are providing information to our members on these new discovery rules and how they will affect them. We are also advising local departments to consult with their own legal counsel on how to efficiently handle these matters in conjunction with local prosecutors," DeLuca wrote in a Jan. 2 email. "FASNY is monitoring this new law closely for any impact on the volunteer fire service.”

Warren County District Attorney Jason Carusone said his office understands the concerns. He said his staff has pointed out that his office is legally obligated to turn over what information it compiles about its potential witnesses, but the law does not require the witnesses to cooperate with those who make the request.

“There is nothing in the law that says a witness has to give their address or date of birth,” he said.

Washington County District Attorney Tony Jordan said he has heard concerns about the information requests as well, but he said many of those who will be affected haven’t become aware of it yet.

He said the big change is that the criminal history checks on “potential” witnesses weren’t needed in the past, only those who were planned to be called at a trial or hearing.

“The consequence of it was never felt because they generally wouldn’t have to testify and we wouldn’t have had to turn it over unless they were being called to testify,” Jordan said. “There is some anxiety about it. Understandably, people are concerned.”

Don Lehman covers police and court matters, Warren County government and the outdoors. He can be reached at 518-742-3224 or dlehman@poststar.com

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