Using unusually strong language, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court 2nd Department, described the actions of an arresting officer as "exceptionally serious misconduct of law enforcement personnel... . Such conduct poses a grave risk to the assurances of due process afforded to Juveniles by the Family Court Act, and it should not be countenanced."
In a unanimous decision released last week, in the Matter of Steven C, the Court reversed the Family Court findings, dismissed charges against a teenager and vacated his adjudication as a juvenile delinquent in the interests of justice.
In a unanimous decision released earlier this month, Justice Robert Miller and three other appellate judges sitting in Brooklyn, found that Steven (last name not used because of his age), a ninth grader at a Queens high school, returning to school after the lunch recess, was stopped, handcuffed and placed in a police car with another student. A third student was then arrested nearby. Documents filed with the Family Court alleged that the three youngsters had trespassed.
The police claimed that they had observed the three jump over a fence around a private backyard, and further submitted an affidavit from the owner of the private residence that she had not given any permission for anyone to be in her backyard at the time the three were allegedly there.
At a court hearing a year and a half later, two different officers testified that they had observed the three respondents (who, if they had been adults would be classified as 'defendants')
in the backyard, chased them and arrested the other two, but not Steven. In addition they stated under oath that they were the only police officers at the scene when the three were in the backyard, and that the actual arresting officer was not there.
Testifying at the hearing each of the respondents stated that they were never in the backyard. Steven specifically stated that he had run to school and was stopped by a police officer as he was entering the school building. Nevertheless a Family Court judge found that Steven had committed acts which, if committed by an adult, would have constituted the crime of criminal trespass in the third degree. Although 22 months had passed, the judge declared him a juvenile delinquent and placed him on probation for a year.
In dismissing in the interests of justice, the court also cites that the petition that activated the court proceeding was defective as it was based on hearsay, and was not true. The petition was defective as it was a sworn statement notarized under penalty of perjury by the arresting officer who stated that he had seen Steven jump the fence in question. If he had seen it, this would not be hearsay. But the officers at the hearing testified that the arresting officer had not, in fact, been present and had not actually witness the acts complained of.
Relying on the Family Court Act, the Appellate Division judges said that the law is 'Designed to ensure substantive due process protection to an alleged juvenile delinquent, who can be arrested and deprived of liberty based on the petition.' Calling the police actions 'troubling shortcomings,' the judges also noted that none of the three respondents had caused any harm to any person or property, and that the testifying officers had testified that they, 'Were merely standing the backyard... .' They make no mention of the Respondents' denials of ever being in the backyard.
In reaching a decision, the Family Court judge clearly believed the police officers and not the accused.
However, the judge's acceptance of the officers' testimony at trial which contradicted the original officers' sworn statements, meant that the first cops were untruthful.
Justice Miller's Opinion was joined by Justice William Mastro, Mark Dillon, and Sandra Sgroi. Steven C was represented by Larry Bachner of Jamaica, NY. The City of New York was represented by Corporation Counsel.
Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice