BUFFALO, N.Y. — A series of court rulings in Albany County, handed down by separate judges over the course of the past seven months, may have major implications for criminal prosecutions of abuse and neglect in special needs facilities across the state.

The three rulings dismissed charges and questioned the prosecutorial authority of the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, a state agency created by lawmakers in 2013. The Justice Center investigates and prosecutes cases in which victims are especially vulnerable in some way, such as developmentally disabled or struggling with addiction or mental health problems.

The agency asserts jurisdiction over state-run or state-licensed facilities, specializing in cases that local district attorneys' offices may not have the resources to handle.

But the Justice Center's special prosecutors are not elected, and that's why the judges in Albany County made it clear they must work under the umbrella of a local district attorney or the State Attorney General's Office.

Penny Wolfgang, a recently-retired judge who oversaw a case in Erie County involving the Justice Center, said the latest rulings from Albany County will set a legal precedent for all future prosecutions. It's unclear what may happen to previous convictions obtained by Justice Center special prosecutors, but Wolfgang says it's entirely possible defense attorneys could challenge convictions through "collateral" proceedings.

Before she retired, Judge Penny Wolfgang oversaw a case in Erie County involving the Justice Center.
Before she retired, Judge Penny Wolfgang oversaw a case in Erie County involving the Justice Center.

"If it's a jurisdictional issue, and if a higher court does agree with the Albany courts that they do not have jurisdiction to prosecute these cases, I don't think any convictions would be safe," Wolfgang said.

The Justice Center, however, strongly defends its right to handle prosecutions and remains adamant that it consults closely with local district attorneys. A spokesperson told 2 On Your Side that his colleagues "respectfully disagree with these local court rulings and will be appealing."

In reports published on its website, the Justice Center also offered an expanded definition of its role in the legal process.

"Justice Center prosecutors are empowered to handle all aspects of criminal prosecutions from arraignment to trial or plea bargain to ensure justice for vulnerable victims and hold those who violate the law accountable for their actions," the organization claims. "Justice Center prosecutors also provide assistance as needed to local District Attorneys."

Even so, defense attorneys may use the Albany County rulings to form new legal arguments.

Barry Covert, who represents several clients investigated or prosecuted by the Justice Center in ongoing cases, said he'll certainly challenge the agency's authority now that multiple judges have raised questions about constitutionality.

Like Judge Wolfgang, Covert also said defense attorneys may pursue new legal avenues to challenge previous convictions obtained by the Justice Center's special prosecutors.

"I would think those lawyers will want to look to see whether they can reopen the cases, as having been brought by a prosecutor who never had jurisdiction to bring the case," Covert said, "and indicate that because the prosecutor never had jurisdiction over the case, that the case should be a nullity and therefore it should be dismissed."

Even if that were legally plausible, it certainly wouldn't happen overnight. It is important to point out that the rulings in Albany County will in no way lead to an immediate unraveling of all other cases involving the Justice Center.

But Covert said he believes defense attorneys would have strong arguments to make.

"I would not be surprised to see courts overturn or reopen prior convictions, and overturn them based on the fact that prosecutors had no jurisdiction to prosecute the case," Covert said.

State Senator Robert Ortt, a Republican from North Tonawanda, has sponsored legislation related to the oversight of the Justice Center and followed the developments in Albany County closely. Ortt told 2 On Your Side on Thursday that he'll introduce legislation next session to help clarify the Justice Center's role in the legal process.

Ortt said he'd like to see the Justice Center work in conjunction with local district attorneys in the same way some drug and narcotics cases are handled. If a district attorney were to appoint the Justice Center as a special prosecutor, for example, it may satisfy some of the constitutional concerns.

"There may need to be some reform to the Justice Center's core mission, and maybe we can bring some clarity to that mission as to how these cases are to proceed," Ortt said.

The New York State Attorney General's Office agrees with Ortt's interpretation. On Thursday, it released the following two-sentence statement to 2 On Your Side:

"As we've successfully argued in court, under the State Constitution only District Attorneys and the Attorney General have the power to criminally prosecute. Yet the Justice Center can accomplish its statutory mission simply by obtaining delegated prosecutorial authority from the relevant DA."