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Law
Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Law
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"NYC Law" refers to the legal and juridical dimensions of City public policy. What do the laws say? How have they been interpreted? What is the relationship between laws as written and rules as enforced?
The Context
The sheer size of NYC government requires its extensive legal involvement in countless issues. Over 700 attorneys are employed in the Office of the Corporation Counsel alone. Every major and minor public policy issue has a legal dimension. On some issues – Charter revision or campaign finance limits, for example – the legal dimension is paramount.
The Reporter
Margaret Reuter, better known as Meg, is the managing editor of City Law, the bi-monthly journal on City legal developments published by the Center for New York City Law. She also serves as an adjunct professor at New York Law School. She is reachable at [email protected].

by Margaret Reuter, Center for New York City Law at New York Law School

In the News: Plaintiffs in racial profiling case get highly sensitive police personnel files

(june '00) The racial profiling lawsuit

In October 1999, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin allowed a lawsuit to go forward that was brought by six Black and Hispanic men aged 23 to 31. They alleged that racial profiling was so endemic to the NYPD, and especially the Street Crimes Unit, that Black and Hispanic men were accosted, questioned, and fiercely handled by SCU officers based on their color and ethnicity without suspicion of wrongdoing. The SCU was once considered the elite anti-crime corps drafted to interdict illegal weapons in high crime areas. The complaint described some of the SCU's alleged practices:

Generally, not always, SCU officers operate at night in teams, roaming the streets in unmarked cars, including taxi cabs. Until recently, the unit's officers were in plainclothes. SCU officers routinely stop or "toss" people at random, often based solely on an individual's race and/or national origin. In a typical stop, SCU officers will rush up to an individual on the street or pull over a car. Those stopped are then peppered with questions about whether they possess firearms and/or drugs and why they are in the area. Often, SCU officers thoroughly frisk the people they stop and completely search their persons and belongings, scouring clothes, belongings, wallets and vehicles, despite the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause. The SCU's stop-and-frisks are sometimes violent encounters, with SCU officers shoving individuals against walls, cars, and sometimes throwing them to the ground.

Judge Scheindlin found that the men alleged enough facts about racial profiling to warrant a trial on whether SCU's practices constituted unconstitutional searches and seizures and violated the equal protection clause. In particular, she found that the alleged stop-and-frisk policy was likely to recur and refused to postpone this lawsuit until investigations by the federal and state authorities were concluded.

City must turn over police discipline records

The case is now in the discovery phase and the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, which represents the six Black and Hispanic men, has asked the City to turn over various documents including the personnel records of the SCU officers from 1995 on and the NYPD's statistical analyses of SCU arrest demographics. The requested personnel files included the NYPD's Central Personnel Index; files from CCRB and Internal Affairs; all command discipline, charges, and specifications, which include witness and officer accounts as well as personal information about the officers such as residence, family members, medical, psychological and financial records. The requested SCU arrest information called for any statistical analyses of SCU officer demographics and arrests, crime and arrest data by patrol borough, 911 calls reporting gun use, arrest demographics department wide and for SCU, and SCU arrests declined for prosecution. Judge Scheindlin ordered the City to produce the records.

Her ruling on the officers' disciplinary records was a major departure from statutory and case law that protects cops' personnel files from disclosure. The state privilege against disclosure is intended foremost to protect officers' privacy from fishing expeditions by every criminal defendant hoping to cast doubt on the defendant's arrest. Judge Scheindlin ruled that the plaintiff's claims--that SCU had a policy or custom of permitting widespread constitutional deprivations--can only be demonstrated by review and analysis of such disciplinary records. The court ordered disclosure of a redacted form of the records. The City must disclose the time, date, and location of the alleged misconduct, a short narrative describing the nature of the complaint, and what action, if any, was taken in response. All other identifying information, such as names, address, and personal information must be redacted.

Federal and State investigations

On December 1, 1999 New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's Office released his analysis of 175,000 police officer UF-250 "stop" reports from January 1998 to March 1999. The analysis revealed that, even accounting for differential crime rates, Blacks and Latinos were twice as likely as whites to be stopped and frisked. The full text of the report can be found on the Attorney General's website.

The US Civil Rights Commission released a draft of its report on allegations of NYPD racial profiling practices to the New York Times on April 27, 2000 (which is unfortunately not available on the Commission's website). On May 16th, the Police Department issued its 38-page response to the Civil Rights Commission draft, claiming that the Commission recklessly relied on unsupported and uninvestigated anecdotal allegation. The NYPD response can be found on their site.

Meg Sounds Off: Million Moms

I went to the Million Mom March in Washington, DC on Mother's Day, with my family happily in tow. We boarded a specially chartered Amtrak train filled with nearly a thousand moms and their families. The day was beautiful, often festive, and emotionally overwhelming as mothers, teachers, and surviving family members told of the violent deaths of their children. One of my 9-year old daughter's playmates was there. Her father was killed in the Post Office massacre in Montclair, New Jersey. That fact is too much for my daughter to handle; she worries about having nightmares if she thinks much about the risk of wanton violence.

Gun control must be federalized. The superhighway of guns coming to New York and New Jersey from the South obliterates any sensible gun regulation these states can muster. As Anna Quindlen remarked if we can register our cars and send in warranty cards to register our refrigerators, we can register guns. If we can put safety locks on every cabinet in the house to protect our toddlers, we can put safety locks on guns. That was the speech that my twelve-year-old heard the loudest and clearest. Visit www.millionmommarch.com for more information.


Meg's Top Sites For Beginners:

  • Center for New York City Law - The site excerpts select reports from each issue of City Law, a monthly journal published by the Center. Critiques of nearly 40 City government-oriented websites (with links). Recommended: analysis of 1989 charter mandate that the City annually assess the condition of its bridges, libraries, public schools, police stations and the like.
  • City Council - Besides profiling its members, the site allows the user to search local laws and explains how a bill becomes law. Searches for local laws and bills have some limitations. For instance a search for "lead-based paint" produced the recent local law, backed by the administration, but not the competing bill offered by council member Michels.
  • New York City's Law Department - Part of the City's comprehensive NYCLink the site provides descriptions of the work of each division. Highlights include the City's 1997 complaint challenging the constitutionality of the federal line item veto, in PDF format, and former Corporation Counsel Paul Crotty's case for tort reform.
  • New York Law Journal - Best feature: access to full text versions of most cases reported in its pages, most of which are never reported anywhere else (such as on westlaw or lexis). Retrieve and print out the cases reported in the Law Journal by picking "courts on nylj.com" and searching by court. This is a real service, given that compiling your own archive of these decisions had been an arduous task of cutting, pasting, and photocopying. Good links to all kinds of law, business, university, and government related sites.


Other Recommendations:

  • Association of the Bar of the City of New York- Site of the City Bar, organization highlighting its recently issued reports. Now playing: the full text of a report on the City's enormous tort case backlog (more than 62,000 cases) by the Council on Judicial Administration. They critique City efforts in addressing the problem against formidable odds. The site also includes an impressive list of pro bono opportunities for lawyers and law students.
  • The Constitution Society - The Liberty Library has more than 100 classic essays on constitutional government in html, text and pdf format. Features such profound works as Machiavelli's The Prince, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, and the Constitutional Ratification Debates.
  • NYC Documents at Columbia Univ. - This site links to scores of City related sites and guides users through Columbia's substantial collection of NYC-related materials by category.
  • Independent Budget Office - One of the illuminating features of the site: It will calculate exactly how your tax payments are divided up and spent at each level of government (city, state, and federal) both by broad category and by selected programs. Just input your taxes paid and adjusted income from your tax returns (or you can just estimate them, of course), and it will calculate the results.
  • Public Advocate - The chock-full site of Public Advocate Mark Green -- a good place to look to measure the worth of the office that Mayor Giuliani has targeted for abolition.
  • Citizens Budget Commission - Features recent research papers of the CBC. The latest: comparing the competitiveness of the NYC metro region's transportation infrastructure -- the City's highway and mass transit systems -- to LA, Chicago, Tokyo, London, and Paris.
  • Article 78 - This site provides a useful primer for lawyers and nonlawyers who seek to challenge a City or State action claiming it was irrational, arbitrary or illegal. The site explains how an Article 78 action can be started, though it provides little help with what standards the courts apply to overturn an agency decision. Sponsored by a private law firm, the site has some promotional material, but its primer is "promotion free."


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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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