Category Archives: Law

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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Police panel to look through lawsuits for bad apples in blue

The New York City Police Department has put together a review panel to look through civil lawsuits that allege police misconduct in order to find out if cops are committing perjury, or are involved in corruption or other wrongdoing. This, all according to the Daily News.

According to the report, in fiscal year 2008, the city paid out $103 million to settle lawsuits against the NYPD. This figure includes $35 million to settle lawsuits that specifically alleged misconduct.

Apparently this panel will increase accountability among the ranks; under the old system, if an individual sued for false arrest, and it comes out in the lawsuit that the officer had lied under oath, the police department might never find out. The city’s Law Department handles settling suits — which sometimes saves the city money by not going to trial — and the NYPD is not involved. Now, with the creation of this police panel, that will change.

But some civil liberties advocates say that this move doesn’t go far enough. In the article, Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the NYCLU, says that the panel will not being looking at “nuisance” cases — those suits that are settled for small amounts, usually $10,000 or $20,000 — and that this will undermine the whole effort by the department to root out the bad apples in blue.

It’s interesting that this news is becoming public just days after the re-election of Mayor Mike Bloomberg to the third term. The police union endorsed Bloomberg this year — and the kind of review committee talked about here is not something the union would likely favor.

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Mayoral candidates talk about stop-and-frisk at debate

AP

Courtesy: AP

Police in the U.S. stop more than one million people on the street each year. Civil liberties critics say that the stop-and-frisk tactic employs racial profiling. It’s hard to argue with the numbers—most stops are of black and Latino men. The New York City Police Department is a staunch defender of the practice and out of the million stops cited by the AP, the NYPD will be responsible for about 600,000 of them by year’s end.

Therefore it was no surprise that at the mayoral debate last Tuesday evening (see 45:30 in NY1 video), the issue of NYPD tactics under Mayor Mike Bloomberg came up when the Daily News’ Adam Lisberg asked challenger and current Comptroller Bill Thompson to clarify his position with regard to the stop-and-frisk policy.

I was at the debate along with two of my colleagues (check out Lindsay Lazarski’s post re: education) and my ears perked up when I heard Lisberg’s question.

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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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Federal Shield Law Approved by House Panel

A law that protects journalists from having to reveal the identities of their confidential sources was approved by the House Judiciary Committee last Wednesday. Next step: the bill will be sent to the House, where it is expected to pass. What is unclear is whether the bill has enough support to pass in the Senate. A similar bill died there last year after former President George W. Bush threatened a veto, citing national security concerns. President Obama was a sponsor of the shield bill when he was an Illinois senator.

To learn more about the federal shield law, see this post I wrote when I live-blogged from a forum on the issue sponsored by the New York County Lawyers’ Association.

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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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“Justice Center a Success, But Budget Cuts Loom” – in the Brooklyn Rail

Been busy as usual, juggling many stories… but I wanted to direct your attention to a print piece I did for the Brooklyn Rail about the Red Hook Community Justice Center: “Justice Center a Success, But Budget Cuts Loom” — Hope you enjoy the story.

Desiree Pardo strolled into the courtroom six months after she was arrested for possession of a small amount of crack cocaine with a reason to be happy. She had struggled with drug addiction for 17 years, but this morning she had tested negative for all substances. Three large windows let sunlight illuminate the clean white walls of the small courtroom. Pardo sat in the second row of polished wooden benches and maneuvered to get a good view of the judge. “This man is a good man,” she said. “He gave me a chance.”

The 38-year-old Pardo had been attending a court-monitored drug-counseling program five days a week in the same building as the court.

Her success story is one of many at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which was developed in response to high crime rates and soaring unemployment in the isolated Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1980s and 90s. The center housed the first multi-jurisdictional court in the nation; a single judge, Alex M. Calabrese, hears criminal, civil, and family matters. Because it is a problem-solving court, Judge Calabrese has a variety of sentencing tools at his disposal aside from jail time—including on-site social services and programs. Sentences often incorporate substance abuse treatment, counseling, and education. In addition, many offenders must perform community service as a means of reparation to the community that was harmed by their actions.

Now with the downturn in the economy affecting the state’s budget, the center has begun to feel the squeeze.

Read more…

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Live-Blogging the NYCLA Forum on Protecting Journalists and Their Confidential Sources

On Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009, the New York County Lawyers’ Association sponsored a public forum called “Protecting Journalists and Their Confidential Sources: A Matter of Privilege.” The event brought together lawyers and journalists, both on the panel and in the audience, to discuss the legal risks reporters face when dealing with sources that wish to remain anonymous. To get a basic understanding of what reporter’s privilege is, you can watch this video from Media Law Resource Center attorney Maherin Gangat.

The panelists at the NYCLA forum

L-R: Ann B. Lesk (NYCLA president), John Zucker, Judith Miller, Eve Burton, George Freeman, Joshua Kors, Carl Unegbu, Olivera Medenica (NYCHA Entertainment, Media, IP, Sport Law Section program chair)

Speakers:

Judith Miller, The Manhattan Institute (formerly of The New York Times)
Eve Burton, vice president and general counsel, The Hearst Corporation
George Freeman, assistant general counsel, The New York Times
Joshua Kors, investigative reporter, The Nation magazine
John Zucker, vice president, Law and Regulation, ABC, Inc.

Moderator:

Carl Unegbu, freelance journalist and NYCLA committee member

Sponsor: NYCLA’s Entertainment, Media, Intellectual Property and Sports Law Section
Co-Sponsors: NYCLA’s Civil Rights and Liberties Committee and Criminal Justice Section

———————————————-

8:15 p.m.: WRAP – The forum is over and people are milling around talking to each other. General consensus: this area of media law is still very unclear and there are disagreements about what is necessary in terms of privilege. But the room is filled with the buzz of conversation, so at the very least, the discussion is continuing; and with the introduction of a federal shield law in Congress next week, I’m sure that discussion will continue.

8:11 p.m.: A questioner in the back row with an extremely cutting (and loud) voice (I admire his projection abilities) asks about how the discussion of reporter’s privilege could relate to the idea of executive privilege. Burton, in her response, says that from a legal standpoint, both privileges relate to the broad power grab by the powers vested in Article II of the Constitution (the Executive Branch) in the last eight years.

8:06 p.m.: In response to a question about timeliness of this issue, Zucker brings up a current case of a Detroit Free Press reporter who will not divulge his sources.

8:00 p.m.: Miller says that if a source lies to you, then you don’t publish it. Some murmurs in the room. She then qualifies it by saying when they “knowingly lie” to you and whether or not you’re able to know that they did.

7:56 p.m.: The question of qualified promises to sources comes up – as in “I’ll give you confidentiality until I get in trouble with the law.” Miller and Kors agree that sources will dry up unless the promise is a full promise of confidentiality. The questioner wonders out loud, then, what’s the point of the federal shield law?

7:52 p.m.: The radiator to stage right, keeps moaning slightly, on and off. I wonder if it might get worse and become a real nuisance.

NYCLA forum

7:48 p.m.: In response to the first question asked, George Freeman speaks about differences in the versions of the law in Congress. The last Senate version of the shield law only protects reporters and sources when it comes to confidential sources. However, the last House version protected any communications between reporter and source, confidential or not.

7:45 p.m.: The moderator opens the floor for questions from the audience. First one goes to a criminal defense lawyer sitting in the front row.

7:41 p.m.: First mention of the new Obama Administration by:…. *drumroll* John Zucker. He hopes that the new administration won’t go after journalists the way the Bush Administration did.

7:40 p.m.: As journalists, we need to consider whether or not we are being mouthpieces for an anonymous source who wants to disseminate false info, Kors says. But, he continues, it’s our job to make sure the information is true.

7:36 p.m.: Federal Shield Law actually adds something to state laws with regard to a leak investigation.

7:30 p.m.: Eve Burton says that Sen. Dianne Feinstein is worried that terrorists will try to claim this privilege. Miller interrupts her and says twice, “she’s afraid of Al-Jazeera.” Burton thinks that the question of who qualifies as a journalist is really not as a big part of this issue as people make it out to be. She thinks there are other more interesting parts of the issue. But she doesn’t say what. I’d like to know what she’s thinking.

7:25 p.m.: Who qualifies as a journalist? It was like hot potato with this question – first directed to Kors, then passed to Miller, now to Freeman.

7:21 p.m.: Zucker ties his point into a little historical context. Nixon really wanted to go after the press in the late 1960s. Despite the Supreme Court Branzburg decision against the press, state courts in the ‘70s were generally supportive, but now the pendulum has swung against journalists.

7:18 p.m.: Zucker gets his first shot – he’s speaking about national security and a federal shield law. He makes a very good point that most information re: national security is classified. And since it would be illegal for anyone to give reporters this information, this is one area where we definitely need a federal shield law.

7:15 p.m.: Judith Miller would make the same decision (to not reveal that Scooter Libby was her anonymous source, and go to jail as a consequence) that she made a few years ago if she had to do it again.

Judith Miller sign at NYCLA forum

AUDIO: Listen to Judith Miller after the forum talk about why she would make the same decision today

7:12 p.m.: We’re getting toward an hour into the forum and I’m starting to wonder if John Zucker is getting a little annoyed that he hasn’t been given an opportunity to speak yet. He’s all the way that the end of the panel. Literally and figuratively.

7:08 p.m.: First question from the moderator: Who is the privilege given to? Judith Miller thinks that “it is the source’s privilege.” Miller says that she never wrote anything with the information she had gotten from her confidential source (now known it was Scooter Libby). She wishes she had. After some of the discredited WMD reporting, I’m sure some in the audience were thinking they were glad she didn’t.

7:06 p.m.: Reporters are saying “it’s just not worth it” to publish stories when you have no protection. It stops the free flow of information.

7:04 p.m.: The purpose of the federal shield law is meant to “mesh” with the state shield laws. And it’s not an absolute privilege. It’s a balancing act. It’s the judge’s job to balance. What’s the interest of the government? Versus what’s the interest of the people?” says Eve Burton.

6:55 p.m.: The press are the government’s watchdogs, “not their lapdogs,” says George Freeman. He’s talking now about the Branzburg decision as precedent and talks about the three-part test.

6:52 p.m.: A Federal Shield Law will be introduced in Congress next week, says George Freeman. This privilege doesn’t only protect one person; it protects all of us. It enables all of us to get more information. If sources are afraid to talk to reporters, we’re just going to get news and information from the powerful in society. One could argue that this privilege is more important than a doctor-patient privilege.

VIDEO: Watch George Freeman after the forum talk about a federal shield law

6:46 p.m.: (How do you corroborate a confidential source? ) How do decide when to grant anonymity to a source? “First you have to question his motives,” Kors says.

6:40 p.m.: Joshua Kors sets up a presentation related to his reporting on veterans’ issues; it’s a Bob Woodruff package on ABC’s World News Tonight with Charlie Gibson. (Warning: The clip loads very slowly.)

6:37 p.m.: Tonight’s forum is about “We the People,” says moderator Carl Unegbu. Tonight we are discussing the question “why should journalists have a privilege not available to any other citizen?”

6:32 p.m.: The introductions continue. Olivera Medenica, Esq. asks how many in the audience are lawyers – about half the people in the room raise their hands. She also asks how many journalists there are – a number of people raise their hands, but they are outnumbered by the lawyers.

6:28 p.m.: The public forum begins with introductions of the panelists.

George Freeman (R) talks to a criminal defense attorney before the forum.

George Freeman (R) talks to a criminal defense attorney before the forum.

6:12 p.m.: The public forum is running a little late. The beautiful room (with three crystal chandeliers!) is filling up slowly and Judith Miller just arrived. The weather here in downtown Manhattan is atrocious this evening: Huge wet snowflakes that are not sticking.

NYCLA room

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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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