COVID-19 concerns have created major challenges for the court system during the pandemic, even now, two years later, when things are a bit more "normal." 

The game of catchup is still underway, according to Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara, whose 15 years of experience came in handy when the pandemic began.

“The Utica Police got hit pretty hard. We were meeting with them, so then we got hit pretty hard, and then ultimately, the court got shut down for a couple weeks,” McNamara said.

Initially, the pandemic caused a concerning backlog of cases as then-governor Andrew Cuomo enacted the state’s PAUSE order, shutting down courts.

McNamara said between COVID, discovery and bail reforms, there is still a backlog. However, he said, for the most part, it has lightened up for county courts across the state.

“Very pleased at the rate that we’re getting these cases caught up in the county level,” said McNamara. “At the city court level, it’s more complicated because they don’t have all the stuff that we’ve been able to do in the county court. The town courts, no one has even addressed how we would see a jury there."

McNamara said grand juries are back and trials have resumed at the county level. However, he says many hearings are still being done virtually.

“Being able to handle the courts virtually makes it easier for us because Oneida County is such a big county area-wise, and it allows my assistants to handle a court and still be able to be either at their desk or at their home when the courts are being handled at night. But most of our town and village courts have gone back to in-person,” he said.

McNamara said virtual hearings can also be easier for witnesses and defendants, especially those who have a traffic ticket.

“It seems to be a lot easier for everybody involved in taking advantage of modern technology instead of treating it like we’re still in the early 1900s, when you assume everybody is from the area. That’s not the way it is. We get a lot of tickets from out-of-state,” he said.

The district attorney said if you had a ticket that wasn’t addressed when courts were closed, it’s very important to call the courthouse and get the ticket on a docket, as there could be serious consequences.

According to the state’s Unified Court System, there were more than 4,000 felony gun possession cases pending in New York City this summer. An initiative was launched to expedite the handling of felony gun cases including increasing the number of grand juries, and fast-tracking cases that were already indicted.