Gotham Gazette Gotham Gazette is an online publication covering New York policy and politics as well as news on public safety, transportation, education, finance and more. http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/district-attorneys 2017-10-24T06:08:46+00:00 Webmaster webmaster@gothamgazette.com Vance Controversy Spotlights Lax Campaign Finance Rules for District Attorneys 2017-10-15T04:00:00+00:00 2017-10-15T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7252:vance-controversies-spotlight-lax-campaign-finance-rules-for-district-attorneys Ben Max <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/cy_vance_crop_manhattan_da.jpg" alt="cy vance crop manhattan da" width="600" height="331" /></p> <p>Manhattan DA Cy Vance (photo: @ManhattanDA)</p> <hr /> <p>Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., was recently dragged into an unflattering spotlight over his decision not to prosecute disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein for a forcible touching incident in 2015 and for dropping a fraud investigation into members of the Trump family in a 2012, while apparently receiving campaign contributions from lawyers associated with both parties.</p> <p>While it is not illegal - or uncommon - for district attorneys to accept contributions from lawyers in any type of practice, the details of the two cases, including the relevant campaign donations, are drawing newfound scrutiny to the state’s loose campaign finance rules for prosecutors and invite a new strain of age-old questions about whether legal immunity can be bought by the rich and powerful.</p> <p>District attorneys, through their election campaigns -- which are not bound by New York City’s strict fundraising and spending limits -- can receive tens of thousands of dollars from a single donor, including lawyers, regardless of whether the attorney has business before the office. Government reform advocates, including former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, say there are systemic issues at play and are calling for campaign finance reform, including a serious look at public financing for all state-level officials. Some say district attorney candidates should be subject to the same fundraising restrictions as judicial candidates to prevent real or perceived bias or conflicts of interest.</p> <p>Currently, candidates for district attorney operate in one of the many largely unseen areas of state campaign finance law and enforcement, with minimal rules and almost no oversight. District attorney campaigns file disclosures through the state Board of Elections, but there is little evidence that those filings are examined closely -- <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7058-rochester-mayor-accused-of-circumventing-campaign-finance-rules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an apparently statewide issue</a> wherein regulators pay scant attention to campaigns for local offices.</p> <p>Recent reporting from The New Yorker, ProPublica, and WNYC radio, <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-ivanka-trump-and-donald-trump-jr-avoided-a-criminal-indictment" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">outlined</a> how Trump family attorney Marc Kasowitz -- a longtime donor to Vance’s election campaigns -- met with the district attorney before he shut down an investigation into how Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. were marketing a new Trump condominium development, Trump SoHo, despite evidence compiled by his own prosecutors that the siblings may have deliberately misled investors. E-mails described by the three news outlets make clear that the Trumps “were aware they were using inflated figures about how well the condos were selling to lure buyers.”</p> <p>A $25,000 donation made by Kasowitz in early 2012 was returned by Vance’s campaign prior to his May meeting with the district attorney (“standard practice” when a donor has matters before the prosecutor’s office, Vance told The New Yorker), but records show Kasowitz made an even larger donation, of $31,993, to Vance in January 2013, that less than six months after the case was abandoned (after this reporting, Vance said he would be returning that money, too).</p> <p>Similarly, a narrow timeline can be traced between payments from two law firms representing Weinstein, made before and after he was let off the hook for allegedly groping an Italian model in his TriBeCa office, despite an audio recording, made in conjunction with the NYPD, of the movie producer apparently admitting to the incident and apologizing. The lawyer who represented Weinstein in the case, Elkan Abramowitz, is a partner in the firm where Vance previously worked and had contributed $26,550 to Vance’s campaign over the years, including $2,100 after the case was dismissed, as <a href="http://nypost.com/2017/10/12/weinsteins-lawyer-gave-thousands-to-vance-after-da-let-client-off-hook/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">first reported</a> by the New York Post. In addition, Abramowitz’s firm, Morvillo, Abramowitz, Grand, Iason, Anello &amp; Bohre, donated $11,500 to Vance’s election fund, according to state campaign finance records.</p> <p>Another $10,000 contribution came from attorney David Boies -- who has represented Weinstein in past high-profile cases, though none involving Vance -- after the investigation was dropped in April 2015, as <a href="http://www.ibtimes.com/political-capital/harvey-weinsteins-lawyer-gave-10000-manhattan-da-after-he-declined-file-sexual" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">first reported</a> by the International Business Times.</p> <p>Vance maintains that he decided each case based on its merits and denies that donations made by lawyers of his clients influenced his decisions. In the face of intense media scrutiny, he has emphasized that it is common for prosecutors to accept campaign donations from lawyers. “No contribution ever in my seven years as district attorney has ever had any influence on my decision-making in a case,” Vance <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/nyregion/cy-vance-defends-weinstein-decision.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told reporters</a> last week.</p> <p>The recent criticism over Vance’s handling of the two investigations has demonstrated how the state’s current campaign finance system can easily lead to situations that sow doubt about the credibility of New York’s top prosecutors. As county-level elected officials, district attorneys across the state, including in New York City, are governed by state law, including in their campaign activities. Therefore, the city’s five district attorneys are not subject to the city’s campaign finance system for municipal offices, which includes much more strict limitations than currently exists in state law, where little exists to limit or enforce district attorney campaign fundraising.</p> <p>Government reform advocates say these Vance cases highlight the need for public financing of all campaigns, but in particular for prosecutors and judges, who receive the bulk of their campaign contributions from lawyers and legal firms.</p> <p>“People rely on the legal system to be a fair and for [judges and prosecutors] to follow the law -- not to play favorites,” said Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Group. “The campaign finance system creates an inherent conflict of interest. That’s why we’ve always argued for all races -- but certainly district attorneys and judges -- to be publically financed.”</p> <p>Due to <a href="https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/rethinking-judicial-selection-state-courts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing concerns</a> over the real or perceived influence of special interests in judicial races since the 1990s, judicial candidates are now bound by fundraising guidelines, dictated by New York State Bar Association and other ethics oversight bodies, and enforced by the Office of Court Administration. However, there are no such rules for district attorneys, of which there are 62, one in each county of the state, and the Office of Court Administration has no jurisdiction over district attorneys, according to a spokesperson for the agency.&nbsp;</p> <p>The primary ethics blueprint for prosecutors, published by the New York State District Attorneys Association, <a href="http://www.daasny.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/2015-Ethics-Handbook.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">titled</a> “The Right Thing: ethical guidelines for prosecutors,” specifies that district attorneys should avoid certain political activities, such as making others aware of their presence at political events, but makes no mention of campaign finance rules. Campaign finance is also absent from a sparse section of the New York State Bar’s “rules of professional conduct” <a href="http://www.nycourts.gov/rules/jointappellate/ny-rules-prof-conduct-1200.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">handbook</a> that pertains to “prosecutors and other government lawyers.”</p> <p>By contrast, the <a href="http://www.nycourts.gov/reports/judicialcampaignethicshndbk.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Judicial Campaign Ethics Handbook</a>, citing an opinion from the New York State Bar Association, specifies that a judge’s campaign committee “may not knowingly solicit or accept contributions from a party to litigation that is before the judge, nor one employed by, affiliated with, or a member of the immediate family of a party to litigation before the judge.”</p> <p>Judicial candidates are also instructed to avoid contributions from a party that may “reasonably be expected to come before the candidate if elected,” or one who has come before the candidate “so recently that it manifests an appearance of impropriety.” Furthermore, judicial candidates are prohibited from even looking at who contributed to their campaigns and must leave the room at fundraisers when a plea for contributions is made.</p> <p>The judicial guidelines were implemented so that judges would conduct themselves in ways that “maintain public confidence in the judiciary,” according to the handbook. It may be reasonable for prosecutors, who like judges are elected and entrusted by the public to uphold the law, to be held to a similar set of standards.</p> <p>District attorneys in the five boroughs are also not subject to New York City’s strict campaign contribution limits, which set, for example, an individual donation limit of $4,950 per cycle to a mayoral candidate, and much less so for those on the “doing business” list of entities with city business.</p> <p>According to state regulations, an individual can contribute around $34,000 to a Manhattan district attorney’s campaign (the formula caps donations at the total number of active voters in the candidate's party in the district multiplied by $0.05). There are more than 681,000 active registered Democrats in New York County, also known as Manhattan, as of April 2017. But, due to the state’s porous campaign finance rules, contributors can easily circumvent even <a href="https://www.elections.ny.gov/CFContributionLimits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these limits</a>, by donating through a company or spouse, or by creating multiple limited liability corporations, each of which it permitted to contribute up to $5,000 to county-level candidates.</p> <p><strong>A Turning Point</strong> <br />Weinstein’s predatory behavior towards young actresses has frequently been described as an “open secret” in Hollywood circles, but <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/us/harvey-weinstein-harassment-allegations.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a bombshell New York Times report</a> last week detailed decades of sexual harassment complaints levied against the producer, as well as secret payouts to scuttle potential law enforcement complaints, involving actresses like Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd.</p> <p>Days later, <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/from-aggressive-overtures-to-sexual-assault-harvey-weinsteins-accusers-tell-their-stories" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a piece in The New Yorker</a> detailed further allegations, including several women who said they were raped by Weinstein, and embedded an NYPD recording of the mogul seemingly admitting to the Italian model, Ambra Battilana -- who was wearing a police wire -- that he had groped her breasts the day before. Vance’s office, charged with investigating the forcible touching incident, ultimately declined to prosecute Weinstein. Since the story was published, allegations about the producer have piled up, with numerous high-profile actresses -- including Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Beckinsale -- and other lesser-known actresses adding their voices to the chorus women claiming they were victimized by Weinstein.</p> <p>The public backlash to the reports has been fierce, with many calling for Vance to resign and the National Organization of Women <a href="https://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20171013/civic-center/now-harvey-weinstein-cy-vance-sexual-harassment" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">demanding</a> a “full accounting” of his decision in the Weinstein case. A steady stream of New York elected officials have denounced Weinstein, who is a major Democratic donor, and announced that they would return or give to charity donations he made to their election campaigns. And with Donald Trump and his family rising to power, many are questioning whether immunity from criminal charges is at least in part dependent upon campaign donations.</p> <p>Defendings its decision last week, Vance’s office released <a href="https://twitter.com/ManhattanDA/status/917817582048174080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a statement</a> that while the behavior alleged in recent reports about Weinstein “shocks the conscience,” at the time, the recording did not provide sufficient evidence to prosecute.</p> <p>“If we could have prosecuted Harvey Weinstein for the conduct in 2015, we would have,” said Chief Assistant District Attorney Karen Friedman Agnifilo, in <a href="https://twitter.com/ManhattanDA/status/917817582048174080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a statement</a>. “After the complaint was made in 2015, the NYPD - without our knowledge or input - arranged a controlled call and meeting between the complainant and Mr. Weinstein...While the recording is horrifying to listen to, what emerged from the audio was insufficient to prove a crime under New York law, which requires prosecutors to establish criminal intent.”</p> <p>In subsequent days, given the new reports, Vance’s office confirmed it was working with the NYPD to investigate allegations against Weinstein.</p> <p>Meanwhile, Vance has been cruising unchallenged toward reelection this fall. Yet, over the last four years his campaign has raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, with funds coming mostly from lawyers and law firms, and has nearly $1 million left in the bank. In July, he raised $322,832.12, mostly from lawyers, and spent $358,061.43, leaving him with $1,305,989.18 in the bank, according to his filings with the State Board of Elections. Since the Democratic primary in September, he raised $18,400 and spent $399,084.31, leaving him with $925,333.49, according to his 32-day pre-general election <a href="http://www.elections.ny.gov:8080/plsql_browser/efs_summary_page?comid_in=C36419&amp;rdate_in=06-OCT-2017&amp;reportid_in=D&amp;eyear_in=2017" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">filings</a>.</p> <p>The newfound scrutiny of Vance’s campaign finances has placed him in a sticky situation, one that some say could be avoided with new limits on district attorney campaigns, public funding of campaigns for state-level offices, or both. Vance is also now facing at least two campaigns for write-in challengers to unseat him through the November vote, where only his name will appear on the ballot.</p> <p>Some, including Mayor Bill de Blasio -- who was recently investigated by Vance’s office himself, with no charges filed -- maintain that it is important to trust the system and that prosecutors are acting in good faith, and lawyers and prosecutors who have interacted with Vance told Gotham Gazette that he has a reputation as a “straight shooter.” However, experts on judicial conduct say that even those with the best intentions may overestimate their own immunity to bias.</p> <p>“There’s a lot of literature out there on unconscious and unintentional bias with respect to financial conflicts of interest,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The long and the short of it is that people are often poor judges of how they are influenced by financial conflicts of interest, and often take actions that seem unbiased to themselves, but will have the appearance of corruption to outsiders.”</p> <p>Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was fired by President Donald Trump in March and is known for efforts to weed out corruption on Wall Street and in state government, weighed in on the controversy surrounding Vance on Friday.</p> <p>“It's time that candidates for local District Attorney just say no to campaign donations from criminal defense lawyers,” Bharara <a href="https://twitter.com/PreetBharara/status/918692649158053888" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tweeted</a>, later adding that there should only be public financing for district attorney candidates.</p> <p>While public financing may be ideal, and is perhaps the “cleanest” way to prevent many conflicts, there may also be legal precedent for the passage of state law prohibiting who can contribute to a district attorney’s campaign, according to Horner.</p> <p>“You’ve got to be careful how you develop a law that restricts donations, because there are First Amendment issues that come up, but I think it can be done,” said Horner, noting about half the states in the country have some restrictions on the ability of lobbyists to make campaign contributions.</p> <p>“It’s a clumsy process and someone has to enforce it,” he added, noting that the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, an ethics advisory board that currently only has jurisdiction over lobbyists and state-level officials, could be incorporated through legislation.</p> <p>News came on Monday morning that Manhattan Assemblymember Dan Quart <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/lovett-da-funding-scrutiny-inspires-bill-curbing-donations-article-1.3565707" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">plans to introduce a bill</a> to drastically reform how district attorney campaigns are governed in terms of who they can take donations from and what the caps on those donations would be, as reported by The Daily News.</p> <p>On Wednesday, Vance emphasized to reporters that his fundraising standards were legal, and said that he had a “very sound vetting system.” But he acknowledged, in the wake of the controversies, he would be open to reexamining those practices.</p> <p>“It obviously calls for an opportunity like this for me to rethink with my assistants how we wish to handle the matter going forward," he said. "So, in answer, it’s absolutely legal, but [campaign donations] should be re-examined, office by office.”</p> <p>A spokesperson for Vance’s reelection campaign declined to elaborate on these adjustments when Gotham Gazette inquired.</p> <p>On Sunday, Vance published <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/cy-vance-review-appearance-money-affects-work-article-1.3565146?cid=bitly" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a Daily News op-ed</a> in which he defended himself and announced that there will be an independent review of how his campaign has handled contributions, leading to recommendations for future operations, in order “to help us radically reduce the appearance of influence of money in our work.” Vance promised higher standards than required, writing, “notwithstanding New York’s lax campaign finance laws and sky-high contribution limits, I’m prepared to dramatically restrict who can donate money to our campaign — including lawyers — and the amounts that our contributors are able to give.”</p> <p>In the op-ed, Vance said <a href="http://www.law.columbia.edu/public-integrity/about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity</a> at Columbia Law School would run the review of his campaign fundraising and larger campaign fundraising practices by district attorneys. The Center is run by Jennifer Rodgers, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who in a Friday interview with Gotham Gazette said she was not familiar with all the details of the situation, but defended Vance’s character and criticized the larger campaign finance system he’s operating within.</p> <p>“It’s very easy after the fact to second guess whether he made the right decision,” Rodgers said, adding that “reasonable people can differ” on whether certain cases may brought, but that she hadn’t seen anything to make her think Vance did anything inappropriate. “He always struck me as a straight guy,” she said, “and I don’t think that this notion that he’s dirty and is somehow on the payroll is valid.”</p> <p>Now, it will be up to Rodgers and CAPI to make recommendations to Vance that will undoubtedly reverberate to a much wider audience. <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/cy-vance-review-appearance-money-affects-work-article-1.3565146?cid=bitly" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">As Vance wrote</a>, “I never intended to start a conversation about money in criminal justice. But I see now that it’s long overdue. Campaign finance reform is criminal justice reform, and I have a unique opportunity to push the ball forward.”</p> <p>

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/reset_1/cy_vance_crop_manhattan_da.jpg" alt="cy vance crop manhattan da" width="600" height="331" /></p> <p>Manhattan DA Cy Vance (photo: @ManhattanDA)</p> <hr /> <p>Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., was recently dragged into an unflattering spotlight over his decision not to prosecute disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein for a forcible touching incident in 2015 and for dropping a fraud investigation into members of the Trump family in a 2012, while apparently receiving campaign contributions from lawyers associated with both parties.</p> <p>While it is not illegal - or uncommon - for district attorneys to accept contributions from lawyers in any type of practice, the details of the two cases, including the relevant campaign donations, are drawing newfound scrutiny to the state’s loose campaign finance rules for prosecutors and invite a new strain of age-old questions about whether legal immunity can be bought by the rich and powerful.</p> <p>District attorneys, through their election campaigns -- which are not bound by New York City’s strict fundraising and spending limits -- can receive tens of thousands of dollars from a single donor, including lawyers, regardless of whether the attorney has business before the office. Government reform advocates, including former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, say there are systemic issues at play and are calling for campaign finance reform, including a serious look at public financing for all state-level officials. Some say district attorney candidates should be subject to the same fundraising restrictions as judicial candidates to prevent real or perceived bias or conflicts of interest.</p> <p>Currently, candidates for district attorney operate in one of the many largely unseen areas of state campaign finance law and enforcement, with minimal rules and almost no oversight. District attorney campaigns file disclosures through the state Board of Elections, but there is little evidence that those filings are examined closely -- <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7058-rochester-mayor-accused-of-circumventing-campaign-finance-rules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an apparently statewide issue</a> wherein regulators pay scant attention to campaigns for local offices.</p> <p>Recent reporting from The New Yorker, ProPublica, and WNYC radio, <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-ivanka-trump-and-donald-trump-jr-avoided-a-criminal-indictment" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">outlined</a> how Trump family attorney Marc Kasowitz -- a longtime donor to Vance’s election campaigns -- met with the district attorney before he shut down an investigation into how Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. were marketing a new Trump condominium development, Trump SoHo, despite evidence compiled by his own prosecutors that the siblings may have deliberately misled investors. E-mails described by the three news outlets make clear that the Trumps “were aware they were using inflated figures about how well the condos were selling to lure buyers.”</p> <p>A $25,000 donation made by Kasowitz in early 2012 was returned by Vance’s campaign prior to his May meeting with the district attorney (“standard practice” when a donor has matters before the prosecutor’s office, Vance told The New Yorker), but records show Kasowitz made an even larger donation, of $31,993, to Vance in January 2013, that less than six months after the case was abandoned (after this reporting, Vance said he would be returning that money, too).</p> <p>Similarly, a narrow timeline can be traced between payments from two law firms representing Weinstein, made before and after he was let off the hook for allegedly groping an Italian model in his TriBeCa office, despite an audio recording, made in conjunction with the NYPD, of the movie producer apparently admitting to the incident and apologizing. The lawyer who represented Weinstein in the case, Elkan Abramowitz, is a partner in the firm where Vance previously worked and had contributed $26,550 to Vance’s campaign over the years, including $2,100 after the case was dismissed, as <a href="http://nypost.com/2017/10/12/weinsteins-lawyer-gave-thousands-to-vance-after-da-let-client-off-hook/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">first reported</a> by the New York Post. In addition, Abramowitz’s firm, Morvillo, Abramowitz, Grand, Iason, Anello &amp; Bohre, donated $11,500 to Vance’s election fund, according to state campaign finance records.</p> <p>Another $10,000 contribution came from attorney David Boies -- who has represented Weinstein in past high-profile cases, though none involving Vance -- after the investigation was dropped in April 2015, as <a href="http://www.ibtimes.com/political-capital/harvey-weinsteins-lawyer-gave-10000-manhattan-da-after-he-declined-file-sexual" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">first reported</a> by the International Business Times.</p> <p>Vance maintains that he decided each case based on its merits and denies that donations made by lawyers of his clients influenced his decisions. In the face of intense media scrutiny, he has emphasized that it is common for prosecutors to accept campaign donations from lawyers. “No contribution ever in my seven years as district attorney has ever had any influence on my decision-making in a case,” Vance <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/nyregion/cy-vance-defends-weinstein-decision.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told reporters</a> last week.</p> <p>The recent criticism over Vance’s handling of the two investigations has demonstrated how the state’s current campaign finance system can easily lead to situations that sow doubt about the credibility of New York’s top prosecutors. As county-level elected officials, district attorneys across the state, including in New York City, are governed by state law, including in their campaign activities. Therefore, the city’s five district attorneys are not subject to the city’s campaign finance system for municipal offices, which includes much more strict limitations than currently exists in state law, where little exists to limit or enforce district attorney campaign fundraising.</p> <p>Government reform advocates say these Vance cases highlight the need for public financing of all campaigns, but in particular for prosecutors and judges, who receive the bulk of their campaign contributions from lawyers and legal firms.</p> <p>“People rely on the legal system to be a fair and for [judges and prosecutors] to follow the law -- not to play favorites,” said Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Group. “The campaign finance system creates an inherent conflict of interest. That’s why we’ve always argued for all races -- but certainly district attorneys and judges -- to be publically financed.”</p> <p>Due to <a href="https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/rethinking-judicial-selection-state-courts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing concerns</a> over the real or perceived influence of special interests in judicial races since the 1990s, judicial candidates are now bound by fundraising guidelines, dictated by New York State Bar Association and other ethics oversight bodies, and enforced by the Office of Court Administration. However, there are no such rules for district attorneys, of which there are 62, one in each county of the state, and the Office of Court Administration has no jurisdiction over district attorneys, according to a spokesperson for the agency.&nbsp;</p> <p>The primary ethics blueprint for prosecutors, published by the New York State District Attorneys Association, <a href="http://www.daasny.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/2015-Ethics-Handbook.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">titled</a> “The Right Thing: ethical guidelines for prosecutors,” specifies that district attorneys should avoid certain political activities, such as making others aware of their presence at political events, but makes no mention of campaign finance rules. Campaign finance is also absent from a sparse section of the New York State Bar’s “rules of professional conduct” <a href="http://www.nycourts.gov/rules/jointappellate/ny-rules-prof-conduct-1200.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">handbook</a> that pertains to “prosecutors and other government lawyers.”</p> <p>By contrast, the <a href="http://www.nycourts.gov/reports/judicialcampaignethicshndbk.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Judicial Campaign Ethics Handbook</a>, citing an opinion from the New York State Bar Association, specifies that a judge’s campaign committee “may not knowingly solicit or accept contributions from a party to litigation that is before the judge, nor one employed by, affiliated with, or a member of the immediate family of a party to litigation before the judge.”</p> <p>Judicial candidates are also instructed to avoid contributions from a party that may “reasonably be expected to come before the candidate if elected,” or one who has come before the candidate “so recently that it manifests an appearance of impropriety.” Furthermore, judicial candidates are prohibited from even looking at who contributed to their campaigns and must leave the room at fundraisers when a plea for contributions is made.</p> <p>The judicial guidelines were implemented so that judges would conduct themselves in ways that “maintain public confidence in the judiciary,” according to the handbook. It may be reasonable for prosecutors, who like judges are elected and entrusted by the public to uphold the law, to be held to a similar set of standards.</p> <p>District attorneys in the five boroughs are also not subject to New York City’s strict campaign contribution limits, which set, for example, an individual donation limit of $4,950 per cycle to a mayoral candidate, and much less so for those on the “doing business” list of entities with city business.</p> <p>According to state regulations, an individual can contribute around $34,000 to a Manhattan district attorney’s campaign (the formula caps donations at the total number of active voters in the candidate's party in the district multiplied by $0.05). There are more than 681,000 active registered Democrats in New York County, also known as Manhattan, as of April 2017. But, due to the state’s porous campaign finance rules, contributors can easily circumvent even <a href="https://www.elections.ny.gov/CFContributionLimits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these limits</a>, by donating through a company or spouse, or by creating multiple limited liability corporations, each of which it permitted to contribute up to $5,000 to county-level candidates.</p> <p><strong>A Turning Point</strong> <br />Weinstein’s predatory behavior towards young actresses has frequently been described as an “open secret” in Hollywood circles, but <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/us/harvey-weinstein-harassment-allegations.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a bombshell New York Times report</a> last week detailed decades of sexual harassment complaints levied against the producer, as well as secret payouts to scuttle potential law enforcement complaints, involving actresses like Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd.</p> <p>Days later, <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/from-aggressive-overtures-to-sexual-assault-harvey-weinsteins-accusers-tell-their-stories" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a piece in The New Yorker</a> detailed further allegations, including several women who said they were raped by Weinstein, and embedded an NYPD recording of the mogul seemingly admitting to the Italian model, Ambra Battilana -- who was wearing a police wire -- that he had groped her breasts the day before. Vance’s office, charged with investigating the forcible touching incident, ultimately declined to prosecute Weinstein. Since the story was published, allegations about the producer have piled up, with numerous high-profile actresses -- including Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Beckinsale -- and other lesser-known actresses adding their voices to the chorus women claiming they were victimized by Weinstein.</p> <p>The public backlash to the reports has been fierce, with many calling for Vance to resign and the National Organization of Women <a href="https://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20171013/civic-center/now-harvey-weinstein-cy-vance-sexual-harassment" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">demanding</a> a “full accounting” of his decision in the Weinstein case. A steady stream of New York elected officials have denounced Weinstein, who is a major Democratic donor, and announced that they would return or give to charity donations he made to their election campaigns. And with Donald Trump and his family rising to power, many are questioning whether immunity from criminal charges is at least in part dependent upon campaign donations.</p> <p>Defendings its decision last week, Vance’s office released <a href="https://twitter.com/ManhattanDA/status/917817582048174080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a statement</a> that while the behavior alleged in recent reports about Weinstein “shocks the conscience,” at the time, the recording did not provide sufficient evidence to prosecute.</p> <p>“If we could have prosecuted Harvey Weinstein for the conduct in 2015, we would have,” said Chief Assistant District Attorney Karen Friedman Agnifilo, in <a href="https://twitter.com/ManhattanDA/status/917817582048174080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a statement</a>. “After the complaint was made in 2015, the NYPD - without our knowledge or input - arranged a controlled call and meeting between the complainant and Mr. Weinstein...While the recording is horrifying to listen to, what emerged from the audio was insufficient to prove a crime under New York law, which requires prosecutors to establish criminal intent.”</p> <p>In subsequent days, given the new reports, Vance’s office confirmed it was working with the NYPD to investigate allegations against Weinstein.</p> <p>Meanwhile, Vance has been cruising unchallenged toward reelection this fall. Yet, over the last four years his campaign has raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, with funds coming mostly from lawyers and law firms, and has nearly $1 million left in the bank. In July, he raised $322,832.12, mostly from lawyers, and spent $358,061.43, leaving him with $1,305,989.18 in the bank, according to his filings with the State Board of Elections. Since the Democratic primary in September, he raised $18,400 and spent $399,084.31, leaving him with $925,333.49, according to his 32-day pre-general election <a href="http://www.elections.ny.gov:8080/plsql_browser/efs_summary_page?comid_in=C36419&amp;rdate_in=06-OCT-2017&amp;reportid_in=D&amp;eyear_in=2017" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">filings</a>.</p> <p>The newfound scrutiny of Vance’s campaign finances has placed him in a sticky situation, one that some say could be avoided with new limits on district attorney campaigns, public funding of campaigns for state-level offices, or both. Vance is also now facing at least two campaigns for write-in challengers to unseat him through the November vote, where only his name will appear on the ballot.</p> <p>Some, including Mayor Bill de Blasio -- who was recently investigated by Vance’s office himself, with no charges filed -- maintain that it is important to trust the system and that prosecutors are acting in good faith, and lawyers and prosecutors who have interacted with Vance told Gotham Gazette that he has a reputation as a “straight shooter.” However, experts on judicial conduct say that even those with the best intentions may overestimate their own immunity to bias.</p> <p>“There’s a lot of literature out there on unconscious and unintentional bias with respect to financial conflicts of interest,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The long and the short of it is that people are often poor judges of how they are influenced by financial conflicts of interest, and often take actions that seem unbiased to themselves, but will have the appearance of corruption to outsiders.”</p> <p>Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was fired by President Donald Trump in March and is known for efforts to weed out corruption on Wall Street and in state government, weighed in on the controversy surrounding Vance on Friday.</p> <p>“It's time that candidates for local District Attorney just say no to campaign donations from criminal defense lawyers,” Bharara <a href="https://twitter.com/PreetBharara/status/918692649158053888" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tweeted</a>, later adding that there should only be public financing for district attorney candidates.</p> <p>While public financing may be ideal, and is perhaps the “cleanest” way to prevent many conflicts, there may also be legal precedent for the passage of state law prohibiting who can contribute to a district attorney’s campaign, according to Horner.</p> <p>“You’ve got to be careful how you develop a law that restricts donations, because there are First Amendment issues that come up, but I think it can be done,” said Horner, noting about half the states in the country have some restrictions on the ability of lobbyists to make campaign contributions.</p> <p>“It’s a clumsy process and someone has to enforce it,” he added, noting that the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, an ethics advisory board that currently only has jurisdiction over lobbyists and state-level officials, could be incorporated through legislation.</p> <p>News came on Monday morning that Manhattan Assemblymember Dan Quart <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/lovett-da-funding-scrutiny-inspires-bill-curbing-donations-article-1.3565707" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">plans to introduce a bill</a> to drastically reform how district attorney campaigns are governed in terms of who they can take donations from and what the caps on those donations would be, as reported by The Daily News.</p> <p>On Wednesday, Vance emphasized to reporters that his fundraising standards were legal, and said that he had a “very sound vetting system.” But he acknowledged, in the wake of the controversies, he would be open to reexamining those practices.</p> <p>“It obviously calls for an opportunity like this for me to rethink with my assistants how we wish to handle the matter going forward," he said. "So, in answer, it’s absolutely legal, but [campaign donations] should be re-examined, office by office.”</p> <p>A spokesperson for Vance’s reelection campaign declined to elaborate on these adjustments when Gotham Gazette inquired.</p> <p>On Sunday, Vance published <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/cy-vance-review-appearance-money-affects-work-article-1.3565146?cid=bitly" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a Daily News op-ed</a> in which he defended himself and announced that there will be an independent review of how his campaign has handled contributions, leading to recommendations for future operations, in order “to help us radically reduce the appearance of influence of money in our work.” Vance promised higher standards than required, writing, “notwithstanding New York’s lax campaign finance laws and sky-high contribution limits, I’m prepared to dramatically restrict who can donate money to our campaign — including lawyers — and the amounts that our contributors are able to give.”</p> <p>In the op-ed, Vance said <a href="http://www.law.columbia.edu/public-integrity/about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity</a> at Columbia Law School would run the review of his campaign fundraising and larger campaign fundraising practices by district attorneys. The Center is run by Jennifer Rodgers, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who in a Friday interview with Gotham Gazette said she was not familiar with all the details of the situation, but defended Vance’s character and criticized the larger campaign finance system he’s operating within.</p> <p>“It’s very easy after the fact to second guess whether he made the right decision,” Rodgers said, adding that “reasonable people can differ” on whether certain cases may brought, but that she hadn’t seen anything to make her think Vance did anything inappropriate. “He always struck me as a straight guy,” she said, “and I don’t think that this notion that he’s dirty and is somehow on the payroll is valid.”</p> <p>Now, it will be up to Rodgers and CAPI to make recommendations to Vance that will undoubtedly reverberate to a much wider audience. <a href="http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/cy-vance-review-appearance-money-affects-work-article-1.3565146?cid=bitly" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">As Vance wrote</a>, “I never intended to start a conversation about money in criminal justice. But I see now that it’s long overdue. Campaign finance reform is criminal justice reform, and I have a unique opportunity to push the ball forward.”</p> <p>

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

</p>
Thousands of Low-Profile Cases Could Turn on Police Body Camera Footage 2017-04-18T04:00:00+00:00 2017-04-18T04:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6879:thousands-of-low-profile-cases-could-turn-on-police-body-camera-footage Ben Max <p dir="ltr"><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/nypdnews-twitter-2014-vievu.jpg" alt="nypdnews twitter 2014 vievu" width="600" height="394" /></p> <p>(photo: @NYPDnews)</p> <hr /> <p dir="ltr">In June 2016, the Policing Project at the NYU School of Law co-sponsored<a href="https://policingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Report-to-the-NYPD-Summarizing-Public-Feedback-on-BWC-Policy.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> a study</a> with the NYPD to assess sentiments regarding police body cameras, part of an effort to influence department policy as body cameras become worn by an increasing number of patrol officers. The NYPD has been gradually outfitting its officers with body cameras, in part as a result of a court order, with an initial rollout of <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/nypd-wrapping-up-body-camera-pilot-program-1456916402" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">54 cameras in 2014</a>, and 1,200 more to be added to the force this year. As part of a new contract with the city’s patrol officers union, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in early 2017 that all 23,000 patrol officers would be wearing body cameras by 2019.</p> <p dir="ltr">In implementing a body camera program, the NYPD must outline the protocols that would guide everything from circumstances under which officers must activate their cameras to the proper method of releasing footage.</p> <p dir="ltr">The Policing Project survey, which remained open for 40 days, received 25,126 responses from “individuals who identified themselves as living, working, or attending school in New York,” as well as 5,419 police officers. In <a href="http://nypdnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/NYPD_BWC-Response-to-Officer-and-Public-Input.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a study</a> conducted concurrently by the Marron Institute of Urban Management at NYU, police officers answered similar questions and were encouraged to participate by Pat Lynch, the President of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), who posted the questionnaire on the union website within days of its launch.</p> <p dir="ltr">One of the many themes in the study was the ongoing question of a defense attorney’s ability to access police body camera footage in the cases they handle with clients, who are charged with a crime by a local district attorney. Public defenders, who handle a large percentage of cases brought against poor New Yorkers, are particularly concerned about rules governing the usage of body cameras and access to footage. There were 314,870 arrests made by the NYPD in 2016, most of which were for non-violent crime.</p> <p dir="ltr">Discovery law -- the process by which defense lawyers are given access to materials by District Attorneys in cases and plea negotiations -- is inconsistently implemented across the five New York City boroughs, according to public defenders. As body cameras become ubiquitous in the NYPD -- by 2019, all<a href="https://twitter.com/NYCMayor/status/826543006870360068"> </a><a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/059-17/mayor-de-blasio-patrolmen-s-benevolent-association-reach-tentative-five-year-agreement-#/0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">members of the PBA will be wearing one</a> -- there is increased pressure from public defenders and advocacy groups like the Brennan Center for Justice, the Bronx Defenders, and the New York City Civil Liberties Union (who all submitted their own responses to the surveys) to develop comprehensive laws surrounding police-worn body cameras.</p> <p dir="ltr">When Mayor de Blasio and the PBA announced their new contract deal, the mayor said, “this agreement provides the compensation and benefits the world’s finest police department deserves, while outfitting the entire force with body cameras and delivering the transparency and policing reforms at the center of effective and trusted law enforcement.” Transparency is the lynchpin underlying calls for the proliferation of body cameras within the NYPD (and other police departments around the country); but some fear that NYPD policy and district attorney practices will not uphold the rhetoric espoused by the mayor.</p> <p dir="ltr">While police body cameras are often discussed in the context of major incidents of police brutality, it is the many thousands of lower-profile interactions between officers and members of the public that will make for virtually all of the footage taken by such cameras. Police body cameras will capture hundreds of thousands of low-level arrests each year, as well as circumstances around felonies, contentious and harmonious exchanges between police and the public, and instances where people feel that they are treated wrongly by the police and wind up bringing their own legal action.</p> <p dir="ltr">Police body cameras are heralded by many, including de Blasio, Public Advocate Letitia James, and others, as a key accountability and transparency tool. But, they also open what could be a Pandora’s Box of questions and potential pitfalls. Rules for recording and disclosure are being closely tracked by those who will be directly involved in many of the cases where body camera footage will be a factor, and red flags are being raised.</p> <p dir="ltr">According to Cynthia Conti-Cook, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, “the way prosecutors interpret discovery laws in New York State and criminal procedure law really allows the prosecutor to delay what he or she is revealing, causing many people to plead guilty before potentially vital evidence is disclosed." This can place public defenders in difficult positions – if prosecutor determines that body camera footage isn't relevant to a case, the public defender may never see it.</p> <p dir="ltr">While key factors in many legal proceedings involving police body cameras will be when the camera is turned on (and off) and what is recorded, it is illegal for prosecutors to withhold footage that could exonerate a defendant.</p> <p dir="ltr">According to Debora Silberman, senior staff attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, “prosecutors have an obligation under [the] Brady [Bill] that they are required, if there is exculpatory video, they're obligated, [by] ethical and constitutional obligations under the law, to turn that over to us, and to make that known to us.” But this doesn't necessarily mean that a public defender will have access to body camera footage, even if it does exist.</p> <p dir="ltr">Conti-Cook of Legal Aid said that if there is a recording from a body camera that was not evidence a prosecutor wants to produce in support of their case, either because it exonerated the defendant or in any way undermined police testimony or other evidence, then the way that prosecutors work, the prosecutor will likely withhold that evidence until the day of trial, hoping for a guilty plea before they were forced to disclose.</p> <p dir="ltr">When contacted for comment, multiple representatives for District Attorney offices disputed this. They claimed that the Supreme Court decision of Brady v Maryland, which established that prosecutors must turn over all exculpatory evidence, meant that body camera footage would have to be given to public defenders, regardless of whether that footage was favorable to a defendant or a police officer and D.A.</p> <p dir="ltr">Still, some public defenders have expressed doubt that it is so cut and dry and closely followed in all cases.</p> <p dir="ltr">As things stand now, public defenders are looking forward to the proliferation of body cameras, largely so they can contextualize cases. A problem that defenders often point to is the short amount of time they’re given to prepare a case for a defendant. According to Conti-Cook “We have attorneys in Manhattan who don't learn the names of the complaining witnesses until the day before or the day of trial. And there's no way that you can prepare a case without having that information. So the night before they're always scrambling with coming up with a quick investigation, you prepare for the next day. But it really puts us systematically at a disadvantage when it comes to counselling our clients.”</p> <p dir="ltr">It remains unclear if body camera footage will help ease this phenomenon by providing more context, or simply be another data point that public defenders need to scramble for in the final hours before a case.</p> <p dir="ltr">The issue of evidence disclosure, including of body camera footage, is relevant to various cases, those that are tried in court and those settled pretrial. According to Silberman of Brooklyn Defender Services, “many of our cases end in a plea bargain, prior to a pretrial hearing, so we don't get the benefit of challenging the constitutionality of the search or the approach of our client...we don't get to challenge whether the police officer's observation were true or accurate, or whether they make sense in the context of the allegation.” If public defenders are able to refer to body camera footage to ascertain the full circumstances surrounding a case, they may have more leverage and even avoid some plea bargains altogether.</p> <p dir="ltr">One public defender presented a hypothetical situation as an example. A police officer is legally allowed to search a person if the officer believes they witness an exchange of drugs take place. But what if that officer is 50 feet away from the exchange when it happens, and it’s not clear what they were actually capable of seeing at the time? Body camera footage could corroborate or disprove an officer’s account of events.</p> <p dir="ltr">Even if a search yields the discovery of drugs, Silberman sees how body camera footage could be used on behalf of a defendant. “Very often, when we suspect that there has been an illegal approach of our client, and illegal search of our client, and illegal car stop, a car search, of either the car or the house, we would be challenging the constitutional grounds for the search or the approach,” she said.</p> <p dir="ltr">Silberman also sees what she thinks can at times be the officer point of view, saying, “I think it can be easy to justify illegal behavior by convincing oneself that taking a gun off the street or taking the drugs off the street was worth the search.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“[S]o few of our cases get to the stage where we get to challenge their observation,” Silberman added. “Most of our cases plea out. Which means that you're entering a plea, you're taking a misdemeanor or a felony and possibly jail time, or probation. Before you even get to that stage, very often a prosecutor will say to you, ‘look, if I have to go to a hearing, my offer's off the table.’”</p> <p dir="ltr">There are many more pretrial hearings, when a district attorney offers evidence and a potential plea deal, than trials. “Only when you do a pretrial hearing do you get to challenge the constitutionality of the search or the approach, search through the vehicle, search of the client, search of the house,” Silberman said. “If we had a video of the kinds of observations that were made, it would be a completely different ballgame. But it's so infrequent that we even get to a stage to challenge the officer's testimony or perspective.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Right now, both district attorneys and public defenders agree that police body cameras will have a positive impact. In a statement to Gotham Gazette, a spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said that he “has long supported the use of police body cameras, which increase the civility of interactions with residents, reduce false complaints against officers, and provide potentially vital evidence for criminal investigations and prosecutions.”</p> <p dir="ltr">On the question of discovery, Vance's spokesperson said, “Our office will meet our legal obligations to provide this material in discovery, as we do with all evidence. We are confident in our ability to efficiently and effectively utilize and produce body camera evidence.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Echoing a point made by Vance, de Blasio, and others, Silberman of Brooklyn Defender Services thinks that police officers will be aided by body cameras too, saying that they “benefit public safety and officer safety. Just as much as we're concerned about the truth coming out, so are police officers. Police officers also have to deal with people making accusations of falsehoods, whether they're saying something that's not true, or whether they were being too aggressive. And if an officer is acting in accordance with the law, that is justifying all the actions that he took.”</p> <p dir="ltr">State Senator Daniel Squadron, who had co-written<a href="https://www.nysenate.gov/sites/default/files/articles/attachments/bwc_nypd_letter_2.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> a letter</a> with Assemblymember Dan Quart and Public Advocate James asking for more transparency from the NYPD, agrees. One detail that concerned Squadron, Quart, and James related to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). In their letter to then-NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, the three elected officials outlined their worry that the cost of filing a FOIL request for body camera footage was “prohibitive” ($36,000, per the example they cited), and the procedure by which the NYPD could redact footage would undermine the ostensible purpose of body cameras: increased transparency.</p> <p dir="ltr">In response, Bratton wrote that “our working group is proceeding as expeditiously as possible, trying to balance public transparency and individual privacy.” He cited the NYU Policing Project study and closed his letter assuring the three officials that the NYPD was “exploring all options for the use of body-worn cameras by our police officers.” Bratton has since retired from the NYPD and been replaced by Commissioner Jimmy O’Neill.</p> <p dir="ltr">In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Senator Squadron said, “Body cameras can protect officers and civilians alike, but it's critical that transparency be a central component,” Squadron added he will “push to ensure that transparency and safeguarding privacy are cornerstones of body camera policies." Squadron didn’t address specific questions about district attorneys turning over body camera footage.</p> <p dir="ltr">The concurrent NYU/NYPD study did address the way in which the NYPD or district attorneys would disclose body-camera footage in criminal and civil proceedings. In conjunction with the release of the Policing Project survey results, the released NYPD <a href="http://nypdnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/NYPD_BWC-Response-to-Officer-and-Public-Input.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">its assessment</a> of the survey and its new draft policy for body-worn cameras. The NYPD rejected some recommendations from the Policing Project and accepted others. “Arresting officers will provide the assigned prosecutor with access to all BWC video related to an arrest utilizing the Body Worn Camera video management system,” the NYPD writes. Notably, the NYPD did not stipulate how the assigned prosecutor should then release the footage to public defenders.</p> <p dir="ltr">To Nick Malinowski, formerly of Brooklyn Defender Services and now at Vocal-NY, a grassroots organizing group, the new NYPD protocol is not enough. In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Malinowski said, “Body cameras in and of themselves are neither good, nor bad. The way they are used, who has access to the footage, matters. There is not much in the current NYPD plan to suggest it will improve transparency or accountability and certainly the history of the NYPD in this regard does not give us confidence; instead we really should understand this pilot project as an expansion of police power and surveillance.”</p> <p dir="ltr">In 2015, there were a total of 306,695 dispositions across all five district attorney borough offices, according <a href="http://www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/crimnet/ojsa/dispos/nyc.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">to data</a> from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. When Gotham Gazette contacted the five DA offices, none were able to provide precise data on the number of dispositions in which body camera footage was used as evidence. As the NYPD rolls out its body camera program, that fact is likely to change.</p> <p>Mayor de Blasio has pledged that body cameras are “delivering the transparency and policing reforms at the center of effective and trusted law enforcement.” A lot will depend on how the cameras are used and what footage is made available to both defendants and their attorneys, and the broader public. Silberman believes that body cameras “really speak to truth and justice. This is really what our adversarial system is all about. They would speak to what actually happened. It would give us a constitutional perspective on the incident at hand, and the incident in question.”</p> <p>

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by Elena Burger, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

</p>
<p dir="ltr"><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2017/nypdnews-twitter-2014-vievu.jpg" alt="nypdnews twitter 2014 vievu" width="600" height="394" /></p> <p>(photo: @NYPDnews)</p> <hr /> <p dir="ltr">In June 2016, the Policing Project at the NYU School of Law co-sponsored<a href="https://policingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Report-to-the-NYPD-Summarizing-Public-Feedback-on-BWC-Policy.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> a study</a> with the NYPD to assess sentiments regarding police body cameras, part of an effort to influence department policy as body cameras become worn by an increasing number of patrol officers. The NYPD has been gradually outfitting its officers with body cameras, in part as a result of a court order, with an initial rollout of <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/nypd-wrapping-up-body-camera-pilot-program-1456916402" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">54 cameras in 2014</a>, and 1,200 more to be added to the force this year. As part of a new contract with the city’s patrol officers union, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in early 2017 that all 23,000 patrol officers would be wearing body cameras by 2019.</p> <p dir="ltr">In implementing a body camera program, the NYPD must outline the protocols that would guide everything from circumstances under which officers must activate their cameras to the proper method of releasing footage.</p> <p dir="ltr">The Policing Project survey, which remained open for 40 days, received 25,126 responses from “individuals who identified themselves as living, working, or attending school in New York,” as well as 5,419 police officers. In <a href="http://nypdnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/NYPD_BWC-Response-to-Officer-and-Public-Input.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a study</a> conducted concurrently by the Marron Institute of Urban Management at NYU, police officers answered similar questions and were encouraged to participate by Pat Lynch, the President of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), who posted the questionnaire on the union website within days of its launch.</p> <p dir="ltr">One of the many themes in the study was the ongoing question of a defense attorney’s ability to access police body camera footage in the cases they handle with clients, who are charged with a crime by a local district attorney. Public defenders, who handle a large percentage of cases brought against poor New Yorkers, are particularly concerned about rules governing the usage of body cameras and access to footage. There were 314,870 arrests made by the NYPD in 2016, most of which were for non-violent crime.</p> <p dir="ltr">Discovery law -- the process by which defense lawyers are given access to materials by District Attorneys in cases and plea negotiations -- is inconsistently implemented across the five New York City boroughs, according to public defenders. As body cameras become ubiquitous in the NYPD -- by 2019, all<a href="https://twitter.com/NYCMayor/status/826543006870360068"> </a><a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/059-17/mayor-de-blasio-patrolmen-s-benevolent-association-reach-tentative-five-year-agreement-#/0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">members of the PBA will be wearing one</a> -- there is increased pressure from public defenders and advocacy groups like the Brennan Center for Justice, the Bronx Defenders, and the New York City Civil Liberties Union (who all submitted their own responses to the surveys) to develop comprehensive laws surrounding police-worn body cameras.</p> <p dir="ltr">When Mayor de Blasio and the PBA announced their new contract deal, the mayor said, “this agreement provides the compensation and benefits the world’s finest police department deserves, while outfitting the entire force with body cameras and delivering the transparency and policing reforms at the center of effective and trusted law enforcement.” Transparency is the lynchpin underlying calls for the proliferation of body cameras within the NYPD (and other police departments around the country); but some fear that NYPD policy and district attorney practices will not uphold the rhetoric espoused by the mayor.</p> <p dir="ltr">While police body cameras are often discussed in the context of major incidents of police brutality, it is the many thousands of lower-profile interactions between officers and members of the public that will make for virtually all of the footage taken by such cameras. Police body cameras will capture hundreds of thousands of low-level arrests each year, as well as circumstances around felonies, contentious and harmonious exchanges between police and the public, and instances where people feel that they are treated wrongly by the police and wind up bringing their own legal action.</p> <p dir="ltr">Police body cameras are heralded by many, including de Blasio, Public Advocate Letitia James, and others, as a key accountability and transparency tool. But, they also open what could be a Pandora’s Box of questions and potential pitfalls. Rules for recording and disclosure are being closely tracked by those who will be directly involved in many of the cases where body camera footage will be a factor, and red flags are being raised.</p> <p dir="ltr">According to Cynthia Conti-Cook, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, “the way prosecutors interpret discovery laws in New York State and criminal procedure law really allows the prosecutor to delay what he or she is revealing, causing many people to plead guilty before potentially vital evidence is disclosed." This can place public defenders in difficult positions – if prosecutor determines that body camera footage isn't relevant to a case, the public defender may never see it.</p> <p dir="ltr">While key factors in many legal proceedings involving police body cameras will be when the camera is turned on (and off) and what is recorded, it is illegal for prosecutors to withhold footage that could exonerate a defendant.</p> <p dir="ltr">According to Debora Silberman, senior staff attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, “prosecutors have an obligation under [the] Brady [Bill] that they are required, if there is exculpatory video, they're obligated, [by] ethical and constitutional obligations under the law, to turn that over to us, and to make that known to us.” But this doesn't necessarily mean that a public defender will have access to body camera footage, even if it does exist.</p> <p dir="ltr">Conti-Cook of Legal Aid said that if there is a recording from a body camera that was not evidence a prosecutor wants to produce in support of their case, either because it exonerated the defendant or in any way undermined police testimony or other evidence, then the way that prosecutors work, the prosecutor will likely withhold that evidence until the day of trial, hoping for a guilty plea before they were forced to disclose.</p> <p dir="ltr">When contacted for comment, multiple representatives for District Attorney offices disputed this. They claimed that the Supreme Court decision of Brady v Maryland, which established that prosecutors must turn over all exculpatory evidence, meant that body camera footage would have to be given to public defenders, regardless of whether that footage was favorable to a defendant or a police officer and D.A.</p> <p dir="ltr">Still, some public defenders have expressed doubt that it is so cut and dry and closely followed in all cases.</p> <p dir="ltr">As things stand now, public defenders are looking forward to the proliferation of body cameras, largely so they can contextualize cases. A problem that defenders often point to is the short amount of time they’re given to prepare a case for a defendant. According to Conti-Cook “We have attorneys in Manhattan who don't learn the names of the complaining witnesses until the day before or the day of trial. And there's no way that you can prepare a case without having that information. So the night before they're always scrambling with coming up with a quick investigation, you prepare for the next day. But it really puts us systematically at a disadvantage when it comes to counselling our clients.”</p> <p dir="ltr">It remains unclear if body camera footage will help ease this phenomenon by providing more context, or simply be another data point that public defenders need to scramble for in the final hours before a case.</p> <p dir="ltr">The issue of evidence disclosure, including of body camera footage, is relevant to various cases, those that are tried in court and those settled pretrial. According to Silberman of Brooklyn Defender Services, “many of our cases end in a plea bargain, prior to a pretrial hearing, so we don't get the benefit of challenging the constitutionality of the search or the approach of our client...we don't get to challenge whether the police officer's observation were true or accurate, or whether they make sense in the context of the allegation.” If public defenders are able to refer to body camera footage to ascertain the full circumstances surrounding a case, they may have more leverage and even avoid some plea bargains altogether.</p> <p dir="ltr">One public defender presented a hypothetical situation as an example. A police officer is legally allowed to search a person if the officer believes they witness an exchange of drugs take place. But what if that officer is 50 feet away from the exchange when it happens, and it’s not clear what they were actually capable of seeing at the time? Body camera footage could corroborate or disprove an officer’s account of events.</p> <p dir="ltr">Even if a search yields the discovery of drugs, Silberman sees how body camera footage could be used on behalf of a defendant. “Very often, when we suspect that there has been an illegal approach of our client, and illegal search of our client, and illegal car stop, a car search, of either the car or the house, we would be challenging the constitutional grounds for the search or the approach,” she said.</p> <p dir="ltr">Silberman also sees what she thinks can at times be the officer point of view, saying, “I think it can be easy to justify illegal behavior by convincing oneself that taking a gun off the street or taking the drugs off the street was worth the search.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“[S]o few of our cases get to the stage where we get to challenge their observation,” Silberman added. “Most of our cases plea out. Which means that you're entering a plea, you're taking a misdemeanor or a felony and possibly jail time, or probation. Before you even get to that stage, very often a prosecutor will say to you, ‘look, if I have to go to a hearing, my offer's off the table.’”</p> <p dir="ltr">There are many more pretrial hearings, when a district attorney offers evidence and a potential plea deal, than trials. “Only when you do a pretrial hearing do you get to challenge the constitutionality of the search or the approach, search through the vehicle, search of the client, search of the house,” Silberman said. “If we had a video of the kinds of observations that were made, it would be a completely different ballgame. But it's so infrequent that we even get to a stage to challenge the officer's testimony or perspective.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Right now, both district attorneys and public defenders agree that police body cameras will have a positive impact. In a statement to Gotham Gazette, a spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said that he “has long supported the use of police body cameras, which increase the civility of interactions with residents, reduce false complaints against officers, and provide potentially vital evidence for criminal investigations and prosecutions.”</p> <p dir="ltr">On the question of discovery, Vance's spokesperson said, “Our office will meet our legal obligations to provide this material in discovery, as we do with all evidence. We are confident in our ability to efficiently and effectively utilize and produce body camera evidence.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Echoing a point made by Vance, de Blasio, and others, Silberman of Brooklyn Defender Services thinks that police officers will be aided by body cameras too, saying that they “benefit public safety and officer safety. Just as much as we're concerned about the truth coming out, so are police officers. Police officers also have to deal with people making accusations of falsehoods, whether they're saying something that's not true, or whether they were being too aggressive. And if an officer is acting in accordance with the law, that is justifying all the actions that he took.”</p> <p dir="ltr">State Senator Daniel Squadron, who had co-written<a href="https://www.nysenate.gov/sites/default/files/articles/attachments/bwc_nypd_letter_2.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> a letter</a> with Assemblymember Dan Quart and Public Advocate James asking for more transparency from the NYPD, agrees. One detail that concerned Squadron, Quart, and James related to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). In their letter to then-NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, the three elected officials outlined their worry that the cost of filing a FOIL request for body camera footage was “prohibitive” ($36,000, per the example they cited), and the procedure by which the NYPD could redact footage would undermine the ostensible purpose of body cameras: increased transparency.</p> <p dir="ltr">In response, Bratton wrote that “our working group is proceeding as expeditiously as possible, trying to balance public transparency and individual privacy.” He cited the NYU Policing Project study and closed his letter assuring the three officials that the NYPD was “exploring all options for the use of body-worn cameras by our police officers.” Bratton has since retired from the NYPD and been replaced by Commissioner Jimmy O’Neill.</p> <p dir="ltr">In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Senator Squadron said, “Body cameras can protect officers and civilians alike, but it's critical that transparency be a central component,” Squadron added he will “push to ensure that transparency and safeguarding privacy are cornerstones of body camera policies." Squadron didn’t address specific questions about district attorneys turning over body camera footage.</p> <p dir="ltr">The concurrent NYU/NYPD study did address the way in which the NYPD or district attorneys would disclose body-camera footage in criminal and civil proceedings. In conjunction with the release of the Policing Project survey results, the released NYPD <a href="http://nypdnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/NYPD_BWC-Response-to-Officer-and-Public-Input.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">its assessment</a> of the survey and its new draft policy for body-worn cameras. The NYPD rejected some recommendations from the Policing Project and accepted others. “Arresting officers will provide the assigned prosecutor with access to all BWC video related to an arrest utilizing the Body Worn Camera video management system,” the NYPD writes. Notably, the NYPD did not stipulate how the assigned prosecutor should then release the footage to public defenders.</p> <p dir="ltr">To Nick Malinowski, formerly of Brooklyn Defender Services and now at Vocal-NY, a grassroots organizing group, the new NYPD protocol is not enough. In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Malinowski said, “Body cameras in and of themselves are neither good, nor bad. The way they are used, who has access to the footage, matters. There is not much in the current NYPD plan to suggest it will improve transparency or accountability and certainly the history of the NYPD in this regard does not give us confidence; instead we really should understand this pilot project as an expansion of police power and surveillance.”</p> <p dir="ltr">In 2015, there were a total of 306,695 dispositions across all five district attorney borough offices, according <a href="http://www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/crimnet/ojsa/dispos/nyc.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">to data</a> from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. When Gotham Gazette contacted the five DA offices, none were able to provide precise data on the number of dispositions in which body camera footage was used as evidence. As the NYPD rolls out its body camera program, that fact is likely to change.</p> <p>Mayor de Blasio has pledged that body cameras are “delivering the transparency and policing reforms at the center of effective and trusted law enforcement.” A lot will depend on how the cameras are used and what footage is made available to both defendants and their attorneys, and the broader public. Silberman believes that body cameras “really speak to truth and justice. This is really what our adversarial system is all about. They would speak to what actually happened. It would give us a constitutional perspective on the incident at hand, and the incident in question.”</p> <p>

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by Elena Burger, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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To Eradicate Sex Trafficking, Prosecute the Pimps and Buyers 2016-02-01T22:17:30+00:00 2016-02-01T22:17:30+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6133:to-eradicate-sex-trafficking-prosecute-the-pimps-and-buyers Super User <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/ehibibcb.jpg" alt="hersh" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Lauren Hersh, the author (at podium), and other activists&nbsp;</p> <hr /> <p>Sarah was 13 years old when she was lured into prostitution by two men from her New York City neighborhood. For the next two years, she was sold to buyers who were eager to purchase her adolescent body. Her pimp required her to meet a quota and when she didn't, she was brutalized.</p> <p>There were many moments when Sarah tried to leave the life of prostitution. Each time, her exploiter would threaten to harm her or worse, her little sister. Sarah felt helpless and trapped. So, she stayed.</p> <p>Sarah was bought by men who wore business suits and went home to their wives and children. The money they paid would pass through Sarah's hands and land in her pimp's pocket. While her pimp and the buyers operated with impunity, Sarah was harassed and arrested by police more times than she could count.</p> <p>For years, New York court dockets were filled with women and girls who were pulled off the street, brought before judges, sent to jail, and then returned back into the hands of their exploiters. This vicious cycle was fueled by laws that failed to adequately protect victims and a public perception that people in prostitution were there of their own free will and should be punished in an effort to "clean up the streets."</p> <p>In 2013, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman created Human Trafficking Intervention Courts after recognizing that the vast majority of women arrested for prostitution were, in fact, victims of trafficking or other forms of exploitation. These courts sought to provide people in prostitution with exit strategies and comprehensive services, instead of jail time and criminal records.</p> <p>Simultaneously, a widespread movement to change the New York State Human Trafficking Laws was gaining momentum. Survivors and advocates were frustrated that in New York, sex trafficking was still a non-violent felony and people who purchased children for sex were receiving lower penalties than those who committed a purse snatch.</p> <p>District Attorneys needed better tools to prosecute exploiters. Victims needed better protections. Change was necessary to reflect the growing understanding that in order to eliminate trafficking, it was necessary to hold traffickers and buyers accountable, not people in prostitution.</p> <p>Albany responded to pleas for progress. In October 2015, Governor Cuomo signed the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act into law, a comprehensive bill that increases accountability for those who exploit, while providing protections for some of society's most marginalized. Last week, survivors around the state cheered as this law went into effect.</p> <p>The Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act can absolutely be a game changer. But, like any law, it makes no difference if it is not enforced. And this is a significant task.</p> <p>Sarah's experience with our criminal justice system signals a need for change.</p> <p>Specifically, we need widespread police training not only about the new law, but the complexity of exploitation and best practices for prevention. Police departments must continue to shift perspectives on prostitution.</p> <p>Government resources must be used to prosecute traffickers and to eliminate the demand for prostitution by going after buyers. It's a simple case of supply and demand: without buyers, there's no profit for the sellers. Successful trafficking prevention must include sex-buyer accountability.</p> <p>Law enforcement cannot eliminate trafficking alone. Resources must be allocated to heighten community awareness and provide in-depth training for those on the front lines. School teachers, medical professionals, and those working with children in foster care, LGBT youth and other vulnerable populations often meet young victims, but without adequate trafficking training, they may miss critical signs of exploitation.</p> <p>Today, Sarah* is a lawyer and one of the fiercest anti-trafficking advocates you will ever meet. But she can't do it alone. The notion that prostitution is a victimless crime must be banished from our vernacular. People in prostitution must be seen for what they are: victims of modern-day slavery and sexual violence.</p> <p>It's incumbent on all of us – including our elected officials at the federal, state and local levels, the judiciary, law enforcement, and everyday citizens – to do what we can to prevent even one young girl from living the hell that Sarah endured.</p> <p><em>*Note: Sarah (a pseudonym), is now in her late twenties and still receives threats against her life from her former pimp. Her safety requires full anonymity.</em></p> <p>***<br />Lauren Hersh is Director of Anti-Trafficking Policy and Advocacy at the NYC-based <a href="https://www.sanctuaryforfamilies.org/" target="_blank">Sanctuary for Families</a>, a leading service provider and advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence.</p> <p>

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/ehibibcb.jpg" alt="hersh" width="600" height="400" /></p> <p>Lauren Hersh, the author (at podium), and other activists&nbsp;</p> <hr /> <p>Sarah was 13 years old when she was lured into prostitution by two men from her New York City neighborhood. For the next two years, she was sold to buyers who were eager to purchase her adolescent body. Her pimp required her to meet a quota and when she didn't, she was brutalized.</p> <p>There were many moments when Sarah tried to leave the life of prostitution. Each time, her exploiter would threaten to harm her or worse, her little sister. Sarah felt helpless and trapped. So, she stayed.</p> <p>Sarah was bought by men who wore business suits and went home to their wives and children. The money they paid would pass through Sarah's hands and land in her pimp's pocket. While her pimp and the buyers operated with impunity, Sarah was harassed and arrested by police more times than she could count.</p> <p>For years, New York court dockets were filled with women and girls who were pulled off the street, brought before judges, sent to jail, and then returned back into the hands of their exploiters. This vicious cycle was fueled by laws that failed to adequately protect victims and a public perception that people in prostitution were there of their own free will and should be punished in an effort to "clean up the streets."</p> <p>In 2013, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman created Human Trafficking Intervention Courts after recognizing that the vast majority of women arrested for prostitution were, in fact, victims of trafficking or other forms of exploitation. These courts sought to provide people in prostitution with exit strategies and comprehensive services, instead of jail time and criminal records.</p> <p>Simultaneously, a widespread movement to change the New York State Human Trafficking Laws was gaining momentum. Survivors and advocates were frustrated that in New York, sex trafficking was still a non-violent felony and people who purchased children for sex were receiving lower penalties than those who committed a purse snatch.</p> <p>District Attorneys needed better tools to prosecute exploiters. Victims needed better protections. Change was necessary to reflect the growing understanding that in order to eliminate trafficking, it was necessary to hold traffickers and buyers accountable, not people in prostitution.</p> <p>Albany responded to pleas for progress. In October 2015, Governor Cuomo signed the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act into law, a comprehensive bill that increases accountability for those who exploit, while providing protections for some of society's most marginalized. Last week, survivors around the state cheered as this law went into effect.</p> <p>The Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act can absolutely be a game changer. But, like any law, it makes no difference if it is not enforced. And this is a significant task.</p> <p>Sarah's experience with our criminal justice system signals a need for change.</p> <p>Specifically, we need widespread police training not only about the new law, but the complexity of exploitation and best practices for prevention. Police departments must continue to shift perspectives on prostitution.</p> <p>Government resources must be used to prosecute traffickers and to eliminate the demand for prostitution by going after buyers. It's a simple case of supply and demand: without buyers, there's no profit for the sellers. Successful trafficking prevention must include sex-buyer accountability.</p> <p>Law enforcement cannot eliminate trafficking alone. Resources must be allocated to heighten community awareness and provide in-depth training for those on the front lines. School teachers, medical professionals, and those working with children in foster care, LGBT youth and other vulnerable populations often meet young victims, but without adequate trafficking training, they may miss critical signs of exploitation.</p> <p>Today, Sarah* is a lawyer and one of the fiercest anti-trafficking advocates you will ever meet. But she can't do it alone. The notion that prostitution is a victimless crime must be banished from our vernacular. People in prostitution must be seen for what they are: victims of modern-day slavery and sexual violence.</p> <p>It's incumbent on all of us – including our elected officials at the federal, state and local levels, the judiciary, law enforcement, and everyday citizens – to do what we can to prevent even one young girl from living the hell that Sarah endured.</p> <p><em>*Note: Sarah (a pseudonym), is now in her late twenties and still receives threats against her life from her former pimp. Her safety requires full anonymity.</em></p> <p>***<br />Lauren Hersh is Director of Anti-Trafficking Policy and Advocacy at the NYC-based <a href="https://www.sanctuaryforfamilies.org/" target="_blank">Sanctuary for Families</a>, a leading service provider and advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence.</p> <p>

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

</p>
Incoming DAs Plan to Join Thompson and Vance Warrant-Clearing Efforts 2015-11-24T03:52:49+00:00 2015-11-24T03:52:49+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6005:incoming-das-plan-to-join-thompson-and-vance-warrant-clearing-efforts Super User <p dir="ltr"><img alt="vance bratton nypdnews" src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/vance_bratton_nypdnews.jpg" width="600" height="450" /></p> <p dir="ltr">DA Vance with Commissioner Bratton, photo via @NYPDNews</p> <p dir="ltr">&nbsp;</p> <hr /> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">In an effort to reduce the city’s backlog of <a href="http://manhattanda.org/video-gallery/da-vance-nypd-oca-and-legal-aid-announce-upcoming-clean-slate-summons-warrant-forgiven" target="_blank">1.3 million</a> open arrest warrants for unanswered summonses for non-violent offenses such as being in a park after dark, having an open container of alcohol, and littering, city district attorneys are holding amnesty events, giving New Yorkers with warrants a chance to clear up the original summons without fear of arrest.</p> <p dir="ltr">Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance held such an event in Harlem on Saturday, offering anyone with an open warrant for failing to answer a summons a chance for a hearing before a judge - which often leads to a dismissal and a cleared record.</p> <p dir="ltr">The event, dubbed “Clean Slate,” is the first of it’s kind in Manhattan, according to the district attorney’s office, and comes fives months after Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson held his first summons- and summons warrant-clearing event, “<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5824-at-begin-again-signs-of-new-approach-to-broken-justice-system" target="_blank">Begin Again</a>.” Thompson has since held a second Begin Again event and has a third scheduled for early December. Meanwhile, two new district attorneys - in the Bronx and Staten Island - were elected November 3, and both have told Gotham Gazette they plan to hold similar events once they take office.</p> <p dir="ltr">While DA-elect Darcel Clark of the Bronx and DA-elect Michael McMahon of Staten Island both intend to offer something similar to Clean Slate and Begin Again, long-time Queens District Attorney Richard Brown does not. A spokesperson for Brown, who just won <a href="http://www.queensda.org/dabiography.html" target="_blank">a seventh four-year term</a>, told Gotham Gazette he has no such plans.</p> <p dir="ltr">“It is a sad fact that for individuals who have open warrants for minor infractions called summonses, there is a fear that's constant that they will be arrested,” Vance said at <a href="http://manhattanda.org/video-gallery/da-vance-nypd-oca-and-legal-aid-announce-upcoming-clean-slate-summons-warrant-forgiven" target="_blank">a November 17 press conference</a> launching Clean Slate. “Emotionally and psychologically, those weigh down those who hold those outstanding warrants, and [those warrants] have real consequences - they can affect the warrant holder's immigration status; they can hurt an individual's chance of getting a job; or prevent him or her from enlisting in the armed services.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“If there is an arrest, that years-old case must still come through an already overburdened court system,” Vance noted, saying that he was motivated to host Manhattan’s first summons warrant amnesty event to give “individuals with minor offenses that are outstanding a fresh start, and for efficiency in our courts.”</p> <p dir="ltr">The success of Thompson’s <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5824-at-begin-again-signs-of-new-approach-to-broken-justice-system" target="_blank">first Begin Again event</a>, held in June, led him to put together another two summons warrant-clearing events this year, with the next one planned for December 5. On Saturday morning at the event, Vance told assembled members of the media that given the good turnout for his first Clean Slate event, he is optimistic about holding more in the future, and would like to host such events on a quarterly basis.</p> <p dir="ltr">Hosting Clean Slate and Begin Again events has required the NYPD, judges, clerks, the Office of Court Administration, public defenders, volunteers from the Legal Aid Society, and the community to work together to set up an off-site courtroom for one day. They’ve involved significant awareness and outreach efforts by the DA offices and community partners to spread the word - often on flyers that attempt to make it clear that people with warrants for these “low-level” offenses should not fear arrest at the event.</p> <p dir="ltr">With so many stakeholders willing to collaborate in order hold an event that “helps the person who has the warrant, helps protect our officers so they’re not put in dangerous positions with people who have warrants, who may try to flee or resist arrest, helps our overburdened court system, and helps to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” as Brooklyn DA Thompson told Gotham Gazette, the question remains: will the city’s three other district attorneys follow suit?</p> <p dir="ltr">Spokespeople for Clark, of the Bronx, and McMahon, of Staten Island, told Gotham Gazette that each of the newly elected DAs, both Democrats, do indeed plan to hold such events. (All five DAs will be Democrats after Clark and McMahon are sworn in.)</p> <p dir="ltr">"District Attorney-Elect Michael McMahon has said that he believes programs like Begin Again and Clean Slate have merit and value, particularly in giving individuals and veterans an opportunity to start fresh and clear their names from summons violations for low-level offenses, such as walking a dog without a leash or being in a park after closing, that may impact their ability to get a job or access needed services,” Ashleigh Owens, spokesperson for McMahon, said in a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette.</p> <p dir="ltr">“As District Attorney, he'll look to evaluate options and secure resources for bringing a similar program to Staten Island," Owens added.</p> <p dir="ltr">“Once in office, Bronx District Attorney-elect Clark is committed to working to find solutions that will clear backlogged arrest warrants for summonses, which includes potentially holding amnesty events," Ryan Monell, a spokesperson for Clark told Gotham Gazette.</p> <p dir="ltr">Queens DA Brown currently has no intention of offering any sort of amnesty program in Queens. Kevin Ryan, a spokesperson for Brown, told Gotham Gazette, “We have no plans to offer an amnesty program at this time, as Queens maintains the lowest failure to appear in court rate in the City.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“Additionally,” Ryan continued, “any blanket amnesty program would be unfair to those individuals who assume full responsibility for their actions by appearing in court when their cases are scheduled and paying their summonses. Beyond that, individuals can avail themselves of such amnesty programs whenever they become available in other boroughs."</p> <p dir="ltr">Indeed, the events being held by other DAs are open to anyone with a summons warrant, regardless of where an individual lives or was cited for a violation.</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet even if four of the city’s district attorneys were to hold amnesty events for summons warrants on a regular basis, it would take decades to significantly reduce the city’s 1.3 million outstanding arrest warrants for summonses. According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s <a href="http://brooklynda.org/begin-again/" target="_blank">office</a>, Thompson’s Begin Again initiative has “helped nearly 2,000 New Yorkers and has cleared more than 1,300 outstanding summons warrants,” while hundreds of New Yorkers lined up to clear their records at Vance’s Clean Slate event this Saturday.</p> <p dir="ltr">Hypothetically, if four DAs each held four amnesty events per year and cleared an average of 650 warrants at each event, a total of 10,400 summons warrants could be cleared each year - not even one percent of 1.3 million.</p> <p dir="ltr">It’s also important to take into account the fact that in 2014, an average of 985 summons were issued <a href="http://www.jjay.cuny.edu/sites/default/files/news/Summons_Report_DRAFT_4_24_2015_v8.pdf" target="_blank">each day</a> in New York City. According to the Mayor’s Office, in 2014, a total of <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/235-15/mayor-de-blasio-chief-judge-lippman-justice-reboot-initiative-modernize-the" target="_blank">359,432</a> summonses were issued citywide - 38 percent of which resulted in an arrest warrant for failure to appear in court.</p> <p dir="ltr">If roughly 136,584 summons warrants are being added to the million-plus backlog each year, amnesty events alone will never be able to eliminate the tally of summons warrants.</p> <p dir="ltr">That is not to say that such events aren’t worthwhile, as the participating DAs, public defenders, and others would argue. Many New Yorkers clapped, cheered, and profusely thanked nearby volunteers upon exiting the Soul Saving Station Church on Saturday at Vance’s Clean Slate event. Some walked away with the white slip of paper informing them of their Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal clutched between their hands, staring at it and smiling, while others threw their hands up into the air and shouted “I’m free!” and “Clean Slate, baby!” <br /><br />What’s more, clearing the backlog of arrest warrants for such minor offenses frees up the NYPD and the courts to devote resources to areas with greater need. “We should free our officers to deal with gun violence, domestic violence, and sexual assault - serious crimes,” Thompson said. “Everyone benefits with a Begin Again program. This is being smart on crime, helping reform the criminal justice system, and working together with the community to show that law enforcement and the community can stand as one.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet it is clear to many that a more comprehensive approach must be taken to deal with the city’s staggering backlog of summons warrants - one which grows daily.</p> <p dir="ltr">“The root of the problem is overcriminalization for low-level, quality of life offenses,” Council Member Rory Lancman, Chair of the Courts and Legal Services Committee, told Gotham Gazette. Lancman wants to see some violations made civil, as opposed to criminal. “If I get a ticket for putting my trash out too early, and I forgot to pay it on time, I don’t get arrested. I get a penalty, and I’ll pay my fine,” he said.</p> <p dir="ltr">When asked whether any reforms to tackle “the root of the problem” were currently underway, Lancman replied, “Not directly. We are pushing to have some of the low-level quality of life offenses processed through the civil justice system, though that would be prospective, not retroactive.”</p> <p dir="ltr">About 40 percent of New Yorkers who receive a summons fail to appear in court for the date specified on their summons, automatically triggering a warrant for their arrest. There are a number of reasons people may miss their court appearance: immigrants may fear deportation, some may not be able to pay the fines issued to them, some aren’t able to miss work - but more simply than that, many do not understand what is required of them, and don’t know that a warrant will be issued for their arrest if they fail to appear.</p> <p dir="ltr">A number of reforms have been put in place this year to address this issue. In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Chief Judge of the State of New York, Jonathan Lippman, <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/235-15/mayor-de-blasio-chief-judge-lippman-justice-reboot-initiative-modernize-the" target="_blank">announced</a> a new initiative, called “Justice Reboot,” to modernize the criminal justice system. Part of the pilot program aims to make the summons process easier to understand and navigate by simplifying the design of the summons form and providing a wider window of time for individuals who have received a summons to appear in court.</p> <p dir="ltr">“We have taken steps to make summons court more user friendly,” Lancman explained. “Hopefully, by instituting night hours, by allowing people to pay their fines online once they have pled guilty, and by providing people with electronic alerts to let them know about an upcoming court appearance, we will reduce the number of bench warrants issued in the future.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Even NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has expressed support of amnesty as a means to clear the case backlog. “Warrants never go away. There’s no expiration date,” Bratton said in an interview with the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/17/12-million-open-warrants-new-york_n_7301146.html" target="_blank">Associated Press</a>. “It would be great to get rid of a lot of that backlog. It’s not to our benefit from a policing standpoint to have all those warrants floating around out there.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Bratton, however, has not looked kindly upon the City Council’s attempts to address the “root of the problem” by decriminalizing quality-of-life offenses. Yet, Bratton has expressed commitment to <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5977-peace-dividend-approach-continues-bratton-and-de-blasio-say" target="_blank">what he has called “the peace dividend” approach</a> he is taking, whereby because the city is much safer than it once was, the NYPD can use more discretion. Still, this may mean more summonses rather than arrests, which does not help the summons-warrant problem.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I think these individual programs that DAs are running are good progress and I’m very supportive of them,” Council Member Lancman said, “but we really need a larger, more macro strategy for dealing with this extraordinary number of arrest warrants.”&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">***<br />by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette<br /><a href="https://twitter.com/GothamGazette" target="_blank">@GothamGazette</a></p> <p dir="ltr"><img alt="vance bratton nypdnews" src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/vance_bratton_nypdnews.jpg" width="600" height="450" /></p> <p dir="ltr">DA Vance with Commissioner Bratton, photo via @NYPDNews</p> <p dir="ltr">&nbsp;</p> <hr /> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">In an effort to reduce the city’s backlog of <a href="http://manhattanda.org/video-gallery/da-vance-nypd-oca-and-legal-aid-announce-upcoming-clean-slate-summons-warrant-forgiven" target="_blank">1.3 million</a> open arrest warrants for unanswered summonses for non-violent offenses such as being in a park after dark, having an open container of alcohol, and littering, city district attorneys are holding amnesty events, giving New Yorkers with warrants a chance to clear up the original summons without fear of arrest.</p> <p dir="ltr">Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance held such an event in Harlem on Saturday, offering anyone with an open warrant for failing to answer a summons a chance for a hearing before a judge - which often leads to a dismissal and a cleared record.</p> <p dir="ltr">The event, dubbed “Clean Slate,” is the first of it’s kind in Manhattan, according to the district attorney’s office, and comes fives months after Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson held his first summons- and summons warrant-clearing event, “<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5824-at-begin-again-signs-of-new-approach-to-broken-justice-system" target="_blank">Begin Again</a>.” Thompson has since held a second Begin Again event and has a third scheduled for early December. Meanwhile, two new district attorneys - in the Bronx and Staten Island - were elected November 3, and both have told Gotham Gazette they plan to hold similar events once they take office.</p> <p dir="ltr">While DA-elect Darcel Clark of the Bronx and DA-elect Michael McMahon of Staten Island both intend to offer something similar to Clean Slate and Begin Again, long-time Queens District Attorney Richard Brown does not. A spokesperson for Brown, who just won <a href="http://www.queensda.org/dabiography.html" target="_blank">a seventh four-year term</a>, told Gotham Gazette he has no such plans.</p> <p dir="ltr">“It is a sad fact that for individuals who have open warrants for minor infractions called summonses, there is a fear that's constant that they will be arrested,” Vance said at <a href="http://manhattanda.org/video-gallery/da-vance-nypd-oca-and-legal-aid-announce-upcoming-clean-slate-summons-warrant-forgiven" target="_blank">a November 17 press conference</a> launching Clean Slate. “Emotionally and psychologically, those weigh down those who hold those outstanding warrants, and [those warrants] have real consequences - they can affect the warrant holder's immigration status; they can hurt an individual's chance of getting a job; or prevent him or her from enlisting in the armed services.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“If there is an arrest, that years-old case must still come through an already overburdened court system,” Vance noted, saying that he was motivated to host Manhattan’s first summons warrant amnesty event to give “individuals with minor offenses that are outstanding a fresh start, and for efficiency in our courts.”</p> <p dir="ltr">The success of Thompson’s <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5824-at-begin-again-signs-of-new-approach-to-broken-justice-system" target="_blank">first Begin Again event</a>, held in June, led him to put together another two summons warrant-clearing events this year, with the next one planned for December 5. On Saturday morning at the event, Vance told assembled members of the media that given the good turnout for his first Clean Slate event, he is optimistic about holding more in the future, and would like to host such events on a quarterly basis.</p> <p dir="ltr">Hosting Clean Slate and Begin Again events has required the NYPD, judges, clerks, the Office of Court Administration, public defenders, volunteers from the Legal Aid Society, and the community to work together to set up an off-site courtroom for one day. They’ve involved significant awareness and outreach efforts by the DA offices and community partners to spread the word - often on flyers that attempt to make it clear that people with warrants for these “low-level” offenses should not fear arrest at the event.</p> <p dir="ltr">With so many stakeholders willing to collaborate in order hold an event that “helps the person who has the warrant, helps protect our officers so they’re not put in dangerous positions with people who have warrants, who may try to flee or resist arrest, helps our overburdened court system, and helps to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” as Brooklyn DA Thompson told Gotham Gazette, the question remains: will the city’s three other district attorneys follow suit?</p> <p dir="ltr">Spokespeople for Clark, of the Bronx, and McMahon, of Staten Island, told Gotham Gazette that each of the newly elected DAs, both Democrats, do indeed plan to hold such events. (All five DAs will be Democrats after Clark and McMahon are sworn in.)</p> <p dir="ltr">"District Attorney-Elect Michael McMahon has said that he believes programs like Begin Again and Clean Slate have merit and value, particularly in giving individuals and veterans an opportunity to start fresh and clear their names from summons violations for low-level offenses, such as walking a dog without a leash or being in a park after closing, that may impact their ability to get a job or access needed services,” Ashleigh Owens, spokesperson for McMahon, said in a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette.</p> <p dir="ltr">“As District Attorney, he'll look to evaluate options and secure resources for bringing a similar program to Staten Island," Owens added.</p> <p dir="ltr">“Once in office, Bronx District Attorney-elect Clark is committed to working to find solutions that will clear backlogged arrest warrants for summonses, which includes potentially holding amnesty events," Ryan Monell, a spokesperson for Clark told Gotham Gazette.</p> <p dir="ltr">Queens DA Brown currently has no intention of offering any sort of amnesty program in Queens. Kevin Ryan, a spokesperson for Brown, told Gotham Gazette, “We have no plans to offer an amnesty program at this time, as Queens maintains the lowest failure to appear in court rate in the City.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“Additionally,” Ryan continued, “any blanket amnesty program would be unfair to those individuals who assume full responsibility for their actions by appearing in court when their cases are scheduled and paying their summonses. Beyond that, individuals can avail themselves of such amnesty programs whenever they become available in other boroughs."</p> <p dir="ltr">Indeed, the events being held by other DAs are open to anyone with a summons warrant, regardless of where an individual lives or was cited for a violation.</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet even if four of the city’s district attorneys were to hold amnesty events for summons warrants on a regular basis, it would take decades to significantly reduce the city’s 1.3 million outstanding arrest warrants for summonses. According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s <a href="http://brooklynda.org/begin-again/" target="_blank">office</a>, Thompson’s Begin Again initiative has “helped nearly 2,000 New Yorkers and has cleared more than 1,300 outstanding summons warrants,” while hundreds of New Yorkers lined up to clear their records at Vance’s Clean Slate event this Saturday.</p> <p dir="ltr">Hypothetically, if four DAs each held four amnesty events per year and cleared an average of 650 warrants at each event, a total of 10,400 summons warrants could be cleared each year - not even one percent of 1.3 million.</p> <p dir="ltr">It’s also important to take into account the fact that in 2014, an average of 985 summons were issued <a href="http://www.jjay.cuny.edu/sites/default/files/news/Summons_Report_DRAFT_4_24_2015_v8.pdf" target="_blank">each day</a> in New York City. According to the Mayor’s Office, in 2014, a total of <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/235-15/mayor-de-blasio-chief-judge-lippman-justice-reboot-initiative-modernize-the" target="_blank">359,432</a> summonses were issued citywide - 38 percent of which resulted in an arrest warrant for failure to appear in court.</p> <p dir="ltr">If roughly 136,584 summons warrants are being added to the million-plus backlog each year, amnesty events alone will never be able to eliminate the tally of summons warrants.</p> <p dir="ltr">That is not to say that such events aren’t worthwhile, as the participating DAs, public defenders, and others would argue. Many New Yorkers clapped, cheered, and profusely thanked nearby volunteers upon exiting the Soul Saving Station Church on Saturday at Vance’s Clean Slate event. Some walked away with the white slip of paper informing them of their Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal clutched between their hands, staring at it and smiling, while others threw their hands up into the air and shouted “I’m free!” and “Clean Slate, baby!” <br /><br />What’s more, clearing the backlog of arrest warrants for such minor offenses frees up the NYPD and the courts to devote resources to areas with greater need. “We should free our officers to deal with gun violence, domestic violence, and sexual assault - serious crimes,” Thompson said. “Everyone benefits with a Begin Again program. This is being smart on crime, helping reform the criminal justice system, and working together with the community to show that law enforcement and the community can stand as one.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet it is clear to many that a more comprehensive approach must be taken to deal with the city’s staggering backlog of summons warrants - one which grows daily.</p> <p dir="ltr">“The root of the problem is overcriminalization for low-level, quality of life offenses,” Council Member Rory Lancman, Chair of the Courts and Legal Services Committee, told Gotham Gazette. Lancman wants to see some violations made civil, as opposed to criminal. “If I get a ticket for putting my trash out too early, and I forgot to pay it on time, I don’t get arrested. I get a penalty, and I’ll pay my fine,” he said.</p> <p dir="ltr">When asked whether any reforms to tackle “the root of the problem” were currently underway, Lancman replied, “Not directly. We are pushing to have some of the low-level quality of life offenses processed through the civil justice system, though that would be prospective, not retroactive.”</p> <p dir="ltr">About 40 percent of New Yorkers who receive a summons fail to appear in court for the date specified on their summons, automatically triggering a warrant for their arrest. There are a number of reasons people may miss their court appearance: immigrants may fear deportation, some may not be able to pay the fines issued to them, some aren’t able to miss work - but more simply than that, many do not understand what is required of them, and don’t know that a warrant will be issued for their arrest if they fail to appear.</p> <p dir="ltr">A number of reforms have been put in place this year to address this issue. In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Chief Judge of the State of New York, Jonathan Lippman, <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/235-15/mayor-de-blasio-chief-judge-lippman-justice-reboot-initiative-modernize-the" target="_blank">announced</a> a new initiative, called “Justice Reboot,” to modernize the criminal justice system. Part of the pilot program aims to make the summons process easier to understand and navigate by simplifying the design of the summons form and providing a wider window of time for individuals who have received a summons to appear in court.</p> <p dir="ltr">“We have taken steps to make summons court more user friendly,” Lancman explained. “Hopefully, by instituting night hours, by allowing people to pay their fines online once they have pled guilty, and by providing people with electronic alerts to let them know about an upcoming court appearance, we will reduce the number of bench warrants issued in the future.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Even NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has expressed support of amnesty as a means to clear the case backlog. “Warrants never go away. There’s no expiration date,” Bratton said in an interview with the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/17/12-million-open-warrants-new-york_n_7301146.html" target="_blank">Associated Press</a>. “It would be great to get rid of a lot of that backlog. It’s not to our benefit from a policing standpoint to have all those warrants floating around out there.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Bratton, however, has not looked kindly upon the City Council’s attempts to address the “root of the problem” by decriminalizing quality-of-life offenses. Yet, Bratton has expressed commitment to <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5977-peace-dividend-approach-continues-bratton-and-de-blasio-say" target="_blank">what he has called “the peace dividend” approach</a> he is taking, whereby because the city is much safer than it once was, the NYPD can use more discretion. Still, this may mean more summonses rather than arrests, which does not help the summons-warrant problem.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I think these individual programs that DAs are running are good progress and I’m very supportive of them,” Council Member Lancman said, “but we really need a larger, more macro strategy for dealing with this extraordinary number of arrest warrants.”&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">***<br />by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette<br /><a href="https://twitter.com/GothamGazette" target="_blank">@GothamGazette</a></p>