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After the Dust Settles: The Criminal Justice System in the Aftermath of a Terrorist Attack or Large Scale Disaster

NCJ Number
Teresa P. Miranda
Date Published
8 pages
This paper identifies circumstances that may impact the criminal justice system following a terrorist attack or large scale disaster, and recommends ways to deal with these problems, based on some of the experiences in New York following the September 11th terrorist attack.
In the immediate vicinity of the disaster site, issues that involve destruction of property, possibly including the courthouse, police station, or prosecutor's office, may be faced. Even if courthouses remain open, circumstances may hinder criminal prosecutions, such as the destruction of evidence and loss of or the inaccessibility of witnesses. Many courts are addressing such potential problems by specifying procedures to ensure the continuity of court operations. Inevitably, defense attorneys will seek to obtain benefits for their clients due to any disruptions in criminal case processing; for example, speedy trial violations may be raised by defense attorneys. In an effort to address this problem in the aftermath of the New York terrorist attack, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office made a blanket request to delay all criminal court cases for 2 weeks. The chief administrative judge of the criminal courts denied this request, requiring instead that each case be examined individually to determine whether a continuance was warranted based on specific circumstances. On September 12, 2001, the governor of New York issued Executive Order Number 113.7, which temporarily suspended time limitations for commencing trial or filing an appeal. Despite this order, some defendants have successfully filed speedy trial motions. In attempting to frame issues in advance and devise measures for addressing them, prosecutors can avoid many of the problems that would otherwise arise in the aftermath of an emergency. Advance planning may mean the difference between a disabled court and a court that reacts efficiently and promptly to return the court to its normal functions. 25 notes