Category Archives: Activism

NY high court rejects prison phone rate refund lawsuit

teljus_logo The New York State Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit last week brought by prisoners’ families seeking refunds for the exorbitant phone rates it cost them to speak to their loved ones behind bars. The class action suit, Walton v. NYSDOCS, was filed in 2004 by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of prisoners’ families and friends, who for years had paid inflated rates for collect calls due to the state’s monopoly contract with MCI/Verizon.

Lawyers for the families said that the excessively high rates amounted to an unfair and “unlawful tax” that resulted in millions of dollars being paid over a number of years. The prison telephone service contract stipulated that MCI pay the state 57.5 percent of the fees received from prisoners’ collect calls. Then MCI would be allowed to charge well over the market rate: a $3 connection surcharge and between 16 and 36 cents per minute. The rate of a collect call from a federal prison is 7 cents per minute. Most of New York’s calls are from prisons upstate to loved ones in New York City.

Mostly due to the long struggle waged by the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice, upon arrival to office in 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer halted the arrangement. Rates then fell to about half of what they had been. In June 2007, the state Legislature made Gov. Spitzer’s decision into a law, the Family Connections bill.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said that families were paying up to $300 or $400 per month to speak to their loved ones who were incarcerated. Since 1996, they said, the state had collected about $200 million in profits from kickbacks outlined in the phone service arrangement with MCI. The lawyers maintain that families are owed compensation for this unnecessary burden.

The high court’s 5-1 decision affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the families had failed to assert a legitimate claim under the the state Constitution. The court said the the policy was bad, but not unconstitutional.

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NYCLU files lawsuit seeking access to info about police shootings

The New York Civil Liberties Union sued the NYPD last week to obtain more information and facts about police shootings. The organization is seeking access to two internal police reports: one prepared immediately after a shooting of a civilian, and the other, a more detailed report completed within a few months of the incident.

The NYCLU has filed multiple Freedom of Information Law requests over the last three years—since police shot and killed an unarmed Sean Bell in Queens in November 2006—seeking annual statistical reports about shootings since 1996, as well as data on the race of the victim. The police department produced the reports, but stopped releasing information about race after the 1998 report, at about the time officers shot and killed an unarmed Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in February 1999. Nearly nine out of ten shooting victims in 1996 and 1997 were black or Latino.

Also last week, The New York Times reported that the NYPD released a report showing police officers fired their guns about 16 percent less last year than the previous year. The police report also said that 97 percent of the shooting victims in 2008 were black or Latino.

Despite the year-to-year drop in police gunfire, over the weekend, three officers fatally shot a teenager in Queens 11 times. Police said they spotted 18-year-old Dashawn Vasconcellos and two others leave a city park after hours and a chase ensued. The officers fired 14 rounds after they said Vasconcellos pointed a 9mm semiautomatic pistol at them.

Meanwhile, the NYCLU also says that the NYPD is on track to stop a record number of New Yorkers this year, according to new stop-and-frisk data. The organization says if the current pace continues, 535,000 innocent New Yorkers will have been stopped and interrogated by police by the year’s end.

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Documentary film about lawyer William Kunstler opens in New York

KUNSTLER_Emily_Sarah_2008_Disturbingtheuniverse_0_posterThis weekend, the documentary film, “Disturbing the Universe,” about self-described radical lawyer William Kunstler, has its New York City premiere at Cinema Village. The film, directed and produced by two of his daughters, Emily and Sarah, for their production company, Off Center Media (which produces documentaries exposing injustice in the criminal justice system), takes a personal look at a man who was known for representing often controversial defendants from the Civil Rights era until his death in 1995. The film was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’ve seen some excerpts in an interview with Emily and Sarah Kunstler on Democracy Now!. One of the defendants that Bill Kunstler represented was one of the alleged teenage suspects in the Central Park Jogger case from 1989. Yusef Salaam (who is interviewed in the film) was convicted and spent more than five years in prison for a crime he did not commit (he was exonerated in 2002 when the actual attacker confessed and matched a DNA sample).

The Central Park Jogger case was infamous in 1989 and shock and outrage followed the arrests of the teens. Headlines referred to them as a “wolfpack.” As the teens were convicted in the court of public opinion, Kunstler decided to take the case, as he had taken many others in the past. Unfortunately, he passed away before he could see Salaam be exonerated.

Yesterday, news came from the Justice Department that a number of the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will be brought to New York to face trial in a civilian court. This news has caused the same, if not more, hyperbolic reaction that the Central Park Jogger case did 20 years ago. So I wonder if Bill Kunstler, if he were still alive today, would have represented Mohammed, the self-proclaimed terrorist and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. I think, considering he represented the so-called Blind Sheikh for his role in the 1993 bombings of the World Trade Center, that Kunstler would. But maybe not. Speaking in 1970 on why he didn’t represent right-wing groups, he said, “I only defend those whose goals I share. I’m not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love.” It is true though, that in later years, he would take on cases when he felt a defendant was convicted before the case reached the courtroom. Clearly then, he was a principled advocate who believed in the rule of law, the legal justice system, and the rights of all, no matter how controversial, despised or hated.

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Rockefeller drug law reforms go into effect

David Paterson NYCNew York’s Gov. David Paterson may be ridiculously unpopular these days, but if anything, his legacy will include accomplishing something that no one could for over 30 years: reforming the draconian Rockefeller drug laws.

The governor visited Brooklyn’s Supreme Court on Wednesday to mark the day the reforms, through a deal reached in Albany last March, went into effect.

“Today is a day for second chances,” Gov. Paterson said to a crowd gathered in the Kings County courtroom.

Anthony Papa, the author of 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way To Freedom, was there and lavished praise on the governor:

Governor Paterson deserves thanks and praise for getting the job done. He has been instrumental and worked tirelessly, first as a state senator from Harlem and then as governor, to make these reforms happen.

But Papa still said much needs to be done:

Now that the laws have been reformed, we have to make sure the changes are done right. Advocates and service providers have jumped in and have been working diligently to prepare for implementation.

The revisions to the law, signed by Paterson in April, now gives judges the option of sending nonviolent offenders to drug treatment and rehabilitation programs rather then sending them to jail. Under the old laws, there were mandatory minimums of 15 years to life, even for first-time offenders. The law that went into effect on Wednesday will also allow lawyers for nonviolent offenders to file petitions to judges for resentencing, although no one is guaranteed this chance. Each case—and advocates estimate there may be up to 1,000 incarcerated individuals eligible—will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

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Lawsuits filed for alleged RNC police misconduct

More than 800 people were arrested at last year’s Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Now, many are filing lawsuits alleging misconduct on the part of St. Paul police and the Ramsey County sheriff’s department. It is the first major action taken since last September’s convention.

Also, during the the week of the RNC, nearly 50 journalists were arrested while attempting to cover the protests in the streets outside the Xcel Center. Be sure to read this article I wrote about the 2008 RNC that addresses the legal restrictions of newsgathering at demonstrations.

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The Legal Restrictions of Newsgathering at Demonstrations

Journalists Arrested While Doing Their Job: The Legal Restrictions of Newsgathering at Demonstrations

By Kieran K. Meadows

Inside the Xcel Center the first week of September, the Republican National Convention was finally getting underway after a slow start because of Hurricane Gustav. Outside the convention center on the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota, a completely different story was unfolding. Thousands of protesters had converged in St. Paul to take part in demonstrations or engage in acts of in civil disobedience. More than 800 people were arrested, including many reporters who were covering the convention story.

“If you were a journalist covering the protesters, then you were subject to any number of these tactics,” said Sharif Abdel Kouddous, referring to police crowd control tactics such as concussion grenades, tear gas, mace, and police on horseback. Kouddous, a producer of the nationally syndicated TV/radio news program Democracy Now!, was arrested twice while covering the protests.

“It made it difficult and dangerous to be on the street,” he said. “The fact that you had a camera with a press ID didn’t seem to matter.”

During the week of the RNC, police detained or arrested nearly 50 journalists, including independent media and traditional media journalists, according to the Minnesota Independent.  Some were arrested violently and sustained injuries inflicted by police, actions that drew a sharp rebuke from the organization Reporters Without Borders. Some journalists were released right away, but many spent at least a night in jail. These events illustrate the challenges journalists face in covering this type of story. A series of legal questions arise around issues of censorship, prior restraint and newsgathering restrictions all related to First Amendment rights.

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Felony Disenfranchisement

(This post is similar to the one that I originally wrote for this Web site)

Yesterday my colleague Amy Wysowski began an interesting and relevant conversation about this issue especially as we rapidly approach this year’s Election Day. Also, another colleague, Jackie Linge, drawing on her prior legal experience, added fascinating insight (as well as the human side of the story).

After reading the comments from Amy’s post, I thought maybe this issue needed its own post for ongoing discussion.

First, if you are interested in knowing what New York State felonies are, this site provides a list by offense level. Did you know there are A1 and A2 level felonies, B violent felonies, B non-violent felonies, C violent felonies, C non-violent felonies, D violent felonies, D non-violent felonies, and E felonies? Have a look at the lists. You may be surprised by what you see — and let’s not forget the broad discretion prosecutors have in deciding what charges should be brought in cases.

In New York State if you are convicted of any of the above, you will lose your right to vote (until you are on probation). It is also very hard to get a job (much less a good one) after a felony conviction.

FairVote2020 has some neat interactive charts and maps with loads of good information about felony disenfranchisement across the U.S. by state.

Dan Filler, blogging at the Faculty Lounge, writes:

Felon disenfranchisement has an intuitive appeal – we deny the right to vote to those who breach the fundamental social contract and violate the law.  But these laws have deeply racist roots and a dramatically disparate racial impact today.  There is also a deep democratic problem with the policy; as we criminalize and prosecute more and more conduct, we passively strip more and more citizens of voting rights.

Most states added felon disenfranchisement laws in the aftermath of the Civil War. It is no coincidence that more people gained the right to vote at that exact moment (at least in writing on the Federal level, via the 13th, 14th, 15th, and later the 19th amendments). Only two states allow everyone to vote (including those who are incarcerated): Vermont and Maine. Those two states are each almost 97% white (the highest white populations by state).

For more information and the latest news, see the Right To Vote Campaign, a collaboration between the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, and The Sentencing Project. The Right To Vote Campaign has led on this issue, but its own Web site has been down recently for some reason.

Late Update: See this New York Times article from Sunday’s edition, “States Restore Voting Rights for Ex-Convicts, but Issue Remains Politically Sensitive” and accompanying multimedia map from The Sentencing Project.

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