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A Minor Case Changes Police Practices

by Emily Jane Goodman, Dec 12, 2007
 

Every once in a while a case arises in the law that seems ordinary and unlikely to change law or policy or mean much to anyone but the individuals directly involved. These can be little cases that become big because of determined litigants and tenacious lawyers who keep challenging until they are heard. People v Matthew Jones is one of those rare cases. When Jones, 19, was arrested on West 43rd Street in Manhattan, at 2:01 a.m. on June 12, 2004, he could not possibly have expected that the case resulting from his arrest would three and a half years later reach the highest court of the State of New York.

But the case of People v Jones did go to the highest court, the Court of Appeals. That court has now unanimously decided that legally, it was not Jones' conduct that was the problem, but rather the arrest itself and the language used to describe the event.

Creating A "Public Inconvenience"

Jones, who had no criminal record, was accused by the New York City police of disorderly conduct, a violation of the Penal Law. Because he ran from the police, he was also charged with resisting arrest, a misdemeanor. Police handcuffed Jones, placed him in the back of a patrol car and took him into custody. After a night in a police precinct, hours spent in central booking, a round of fingerprinting and posing for mug shots, and dining on a baloney sandwich while locked up in the "pen" of Criminal Court at 100 Centre Street, Jones appeared before Judge Abraham Clott for arraignment and notification of the formal charges against him.

The charge against Jones was that "with intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance and alarm and recklessly creating a risk thereof, [he] obstructed vehicular and pedestrian traffic." The arresting officer further stated that, "he observed defendant along with a number of other individuals standing around at the above location, to wit a public sidewalk, not moving, and that as a result of defendants' [sic] behavior, numerous pedestrians in the area had to walk around defendants [sic] ... Deponent [the police officer] directed defendant to move and defendant refused and as deponent attempted to stop defendant, defendant did run." Translation: Matthew Jones was standing on a public street and did not follow police orders to move (though he apparently did run).

The attorney appointed to represent Jones, Eric M. Dorsch of the Legal Aid Society, asked Judge Clott to dismiss the case. Dorsch argued that the charges -- Jones' presence on a public street -- were insufficient. That is, the written allegations failed to establish a prima facie case that Jones had committed a crime or violation of the Penal Law.

Dorsch argued that accusations contained in the information, the type of complaint issued against Jones, lacked the factual allegations of what his client had done to constitute criminal conduct. The information must give the defendant specific notice of how he or she broke the law.

The Criminal Procedure Law requires that this written accusation provide reasonable cause to believe that the defendant committed the offense charged. In this case, the acts committed by Jones and observed by the arresting officer allegedly were intended to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm or could created a risk by obstructing vehicular or pedestrian traffic. But nowhere did the papers say what exact acts led to the arresting officer's conclusions.

Judge Clott, however, denied dismissal. Jones then agreed to plead guilty to disorderly conduct with a sentence of "time served," meaning the time he had already spent in jail, without any further penalty. In exchange for the guilty plea, the charge of resisting arrest, a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, was, as is typical, dismissed.

Pressing the Case

Most defendants enter pleas of guilt, which are the same as convictions after trial. Since every year thousands of cases end with guilty pleas at arraignment, this might have been the end of People v Matthew Jones. Here, however, the Legal Aid Society continued to make its arguments. Nancy E. Little of the Legal Aid Appeals Bureau took issue to the Appellate Term, which hears cases arising in the Criminal Court. There, two out of three judges agreed with Judge Clott who had found no defect in the arrest and charges, and affirmed his refusal to dismiss.

That still was not the end of it. Little continued up the appellate ladder, taking the challenge to the Court of Appeals in Albany where all seven judges of the state's highest court agree that the conviction resulting from Jones’ guilty plea guilt had to be reversed and all charges dismissed.

" Something more than a mere inconvenience of pedestrians is required to support the charge," wrote Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, who is from New York City and began her judicial career as a judge of the Criminal Court. "Otherwise, any person who happens to stop on a sidewalk -- whether to greet another, to seek directions or simply to regain one's bearings -- would be subject to prosecution under this statute.”

Citing a 1928 case holding that those congregating on the street display "atrociously bad manners" by "discommoding some other persons," Ciparick's opinion said such conduct alone does not necessarily give rise to disorderly conduct. In other words, the court concluded that "nothing in the information indicates how defendant, when he stood in the middle of a sidewalk at 2:01 a.m. had the intent to or recklessly created a risk of causing "public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm." Therefore, no prima facie case of disorderly conduct was spelled out and therefore the courts lacked jurisdiction or the power to consider the case, because legally, there was no case.

In addition, the court found the prosecution could not say a man broke the law by standing on a public street without stating what he did to warrant an arrest. There were no facts to support the charges. In the future, police officers, prosecutors and judges will have to adhere to the principals set out in People v Matthew Jones. The police will have to write up more specific charges and cannot say that the basis for an arrest was that a person was simply standing on the street, or even being "annoying" without saying what exactly was done.

Once the disorderly conduct charge fell, so did resisting arrest charge. Jones could not be resisting arrest if the arrest was not proper in the first place. Resisting arrest requires that "a person is guilty ...when he intentionally prevents or attempts to prevent a police officer ... from effecting an authorized arrest of himself or another person." And this was not an authorized arrest.

The office of the Manhattan district attorney, which prevails in the vast majority of appeals from cases it prosecutes, had battled the Legal Aid Society in order to uphold both the disorderly conduct count and the charge of resisting arrest. Having succeeded in two lower courts in its case against Matthew Jones, the office of Robert Morgenthau, represented on appeal by Paula-Rose Stark, received an unusual defeat when the Court of Appeals vacated the conviction and threw the case out.

Dorsch, the lawyer originally assigned to represent Jones at his one and only court appearance, has left the Legal Aid Society and is now first deputy executive director of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which rules on cases of allege police misconduct. In that capacity, he has been reviewing the Court of Appeals opinion in People v Matthew Jones in connection with possible future citizen complaints to the board. Dorsch, though, had handled too many "discon" (disorderly conduct) charges, to remember this one in particular. It was only during a telephone interview for this column that Dorsch learned, that according to court transcripts, the lawyer for Jones who, at the arraignment three and a half years before, had made the motion to dismiss and so laid the groundwork for Little’s appeal and the unusual result, was Eric M. Dorsch. Jones has not filed a complaint with the board, and there has been no civil lawsuit.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice 

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