NEW YORK — Arminta Jeffryes was arrested while protesting police brutality. Then the police department played an unusual role in her court case.
A New York Police Department lawyer stepped in to prosecute the jaywalking charge against her, in a low-level court that usually has no prosecutors at all. While many similar cases get dismissed without any admission of guilt, Jeffryes’ lawyer says the police attorney wouldn’t agree to a dismissal unless Jeffryes said her arrest was legitimate, which she contests.
Instead, Jeffryes and another activist are trying to stop police lawyers from serving as prosecutors, a practice that’s emerged in the last two years in the nation’s biggest city.
Jeffryes and a woman charged with disorderly conduct at the same 2016 Black Lives Matter protest are scheduled for trial in criminal court this fall. A ruling also is expected soon in their civil suit challenging the police-attorney prosecutors.
To Jeffryes, a Black Lives Matter activist who’s organized protests over police shootings, it’s chilling to see police lawyers step into prosecutors’ shoes.
“Police departments are already killing us. Now they’re going to prosecute us, as well,” says Jeffryes, 23, who has repeatedly been arrested at demonstrations.
The dispute revolves around the Manhattan summons court that handles minor charges such as trespassing and open-container drinking. Tucked in a city office building, it handles tens of thousands of cases a year, almost always without prosecutors. The Manhattan district attorney’s office says it doesn’t want to expend resources on the small-time summons cases, though it did take on hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters’ cases in 2011 in the name of ensuring consistency.
But the NYPD lawyers have prosecuted at least 15 disorderly conduct, unpermitted vending and unspecified summons cases since December 2015, according to department data obtained by defense attorneys and the New York Civil Liberties Union. At least five cases involved arrests at demonstrations, according to defense lawyers, transcripts and news accounts.
Police say their legal effort isn’t focused on protesters. But defense lawyers say activists are being singled out by NYPD attorneys who aren’t prosecuting cases purely on their merits.
“Their interest is not in doing justice. It’s in cutting off false-arrest lawsuits,” says Jeffryes’ attorney, Martin Stolar. “There is an inherent conflict of interest.”
Indeed, the NYPD says that it’s sick of getting sued by people who got cases dismissed, and that dismissals happen too easily when there’s no prosecutor.
It says it chooses offenders with a history of similar, unpunished misdeeds, though court transcripts show at least two people the department lawyers prosecuted in 2015 had never been arrested before. The department and DA’s office later set out written guidelines, including a defendant’s recidivism, for the police to choose cases to prosecute as the DA’s delegate.
“We do it because there have to be consequences for recidivists that intentionally engage in conduct that receives (the) summonses,” said NYPD legal bureau head Lawrence Byrne. He says the police-lawyer prosecutions are both legal and ethical.
A criminal court judge OK’d them last fall, saying they posed “no impermissible conflict of interest.”
Elsewhere in the U.S., there’s a long history of police officers, if not necessarily police department lawyers, acting as prosecutors in low-level cases.
In South Carolina, for instance, officers prosecuted 89 percent of over 600 cases observed last year in a National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers study of the state’s lowest criminal courts.
The custom has engendered some debate. The South Carolina study recommended putting an end to police as prosecutors, saying it’s inappropriate for an officer to be both prosecutor and key prosecution witness.
New York’s state police told troopers in 2006 to stop plea-bargaining tickets they issued, saying there was “an inherent outward appearance of unfairness” when drivers had to negotiate with their arresting officers. Despite complaints that some towns had to hire lawyers to handle the cases, Republican and Democratic governors vetoed proposals to restore trooper plea-bargaining.
Critics say it’s just as unfair for NYPD lawyers to prosecute. “It’s simply wrong,” particularly for people who might have a false-arrest claim, says NYCLU legal director Christopher Dunn.
The NYPD attorneys have demanded admissions in exchange for agreeing to dismiss the case eventually if a person meets certain conditions, including avoiding rearrest. Frequently used in summons court, the “adjournment in contemplation of dismissal” isn’t a guilty plea or conviction, and the state law that allows the arrangement doesn’t require defendants to admit anything. But court transcripts show the police lawyers have held out for defendants to say they broke the law.
Defense lawyers say the NYPD is improperly using prosecutions to try to thwart wrongful-arrest suits. The NYPD has responded that people should have to admit wrongdoing to get what it sees as leniency.
Jeffryes hopes her case puts an end to the police department prosecutions.
“It’s not only for me,” says protest organizer and former bank worker, who’s now focusing on raising her 1-month-old son. “It’s for everybody.”