During the past three years, the City of Middletown under Mayor Joseph DeStefano enacted several codes to increase local prosecutions of low-level offenses.
Among them, an amended fireworks law and a new quality-of-life code took offenses traditionally in the domain of the county district attorney’s office into the hands of city prosecutors.
Swift fines are the most common punishment for city code violators.
The city got into the act as a direct response to the 2019 New York Bail Reform, according to Mr. DeStefano, who said a lesser-known part of the state law fastened the evidence production timeline for district attorneys and left them with less time for minor crimes.
“But when you look at them on a daily basis, they are not minor; they are major impediments to people enjoying their quality of life,” Mr. DeStefano told The Epoch Times. “So our corporate council Alex Smith came up with this idea of charging them under local ordinances rather than under the state statute.
“We transferred them from state control to local control,” he said.
Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler told The Epoch Times that Middletown’s solution was a win-win for the city and county law enforcement agencies.
“Under the new discovery law, it is a lot of paperwork, a lot of time, and a lot of effort that goes into prosecuting someone for a very, very minor offense,” he said. “It is not that we don’t want to do them, but that local prosecutors are just better suited to do those things.”
During the July Fourth weekend in 2020, the city was bombarded with calls reporting illegal fireworks, including one call from a veteran who had to hide in a closet to minimize the impact of the noises, which reminded him of the dreadful experience on battlegrounds.
Other complaints had to do with the safety of children and animals as well as potential fire hazards.
Under state law, aerial fireworks are illegal, and Middletown police made several arrests. Still, the county district attorney’s office was so busy catching up with the new discovery timeline on major cases that they had no time for such low-level offenses, according to city attorney Alex Smith.
“I don’t blame them, and don’t get me wrong—the discovery reform was long overdue in New York,” said Mr. Smith, who has been a criminal defense attorney longer than he has been a city prosecutor.
Discovery refers to the process of exchanging information about witnesses and evidence between prosecutors and defense attorneys prior to trials.
At the prodding of the mayor and city council, Mr. Smith amended the fireworks law to ban the possession, sale, or use of any type of fireworks and sparkling devices in the city; violators shall be fined between $250 and $1,000, or up to 15 days of jail time.
In 2021, Mr. Smith obtained 35 convictions on the new fireworks law, with each violator fined $500; the following year, the number of convictions dropped to under 20.
“None of these are felonies or misdemeanors; they are violations of city codes,” Mr. Smith said. “So in some sense, police are being nice to people because they are not getting a criminal record or a state rap sheet.”
The number of fireworks calls over the July Fourth weekend also dropped; they went from 103 in the past year to 84 this year, according to Mr. DeStefano at a recent city council meeting.
At the beginning of 2022, a new quality-of-life code was passed by the Middletown City Council to address disorderly conduct and harassing behaviors at city facilities, parks, playgrounds, streets, and sidewalks.
Prohibited behaviors include fighting, unreasonable noises, abusive language, obscene gestures, following a person in public places, and repeated annoying acts.
The code also provides legal consequences for those disrupting the enforcement of such local laws.
“Traditionally, the district attorney’s office prosecuted things like disorderly conduct, resisting arrests, and obstructing governmental administration, but those are all mostly local things of local interests, and I limited the code to things that only applied to Middletown,” Mr. Smith said.
He obtained 29 convictions on quality-of-life code last year, with total fines of $7,525.
For the first half of this year, the number of convictions was 25, well above the past year’s record, with total fines of $6,050.
As to those who don’t pay, Mr. Smith usually asks the judge for a civil judgment, which appears on one’s credit record and will stay on it until one pays off the city fines.
“Sometimes I had attorneys call me up and said: ‘Hey, Alex, there is a civil judgment on my client, and he wants to sell his house. Can we work something out?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’” Mr. Smith said.
He rarely asks for jail time on city code violations and reserves it only for repeat offenders.
Last year, out of 229 convictions by Mr. Smith, only one had jail time imposed by a judge.
In the same spirit, the city recently amended its laws in May to ban any marijuana sales within any zoning districts to put more teeth into enforcement.
Even though Middletown opted out of the state law allowing for cannabis stores in 2021, marijuana products still popped up at several local shops and gas stations, some wrapped up in candy-like packages to appeal to young people.
One enforcement tool available to the city police was to file a report with the state cannabis control board, but it often produced no immediate results, according to Mr. Smith.
The county district attorney’s office normally wouldn’t take up these cases unless large quantities were involved, according to a previous interview with Middletown’s police chief, John Ewanciw.
To tackle the issues at the local level, Mr. Smith made marijuana sale a zoning code violation, which can be punishable by fines between $250 and $2,000, or jail time of up to 15 days.
Middletown police and code enforcement officers work together in enforcing the new code.
Since the law’s passage, several shop owners have been charged with their cases pending in the city court, according to Mr. Smith.