NY Legislature Repeals 50-A
Upon the Governor's signature, police misconduct in New York will no longer be hidden from the public.
The recent death of George Floyd and worldwide uprising has underscored the need and demand for police misconduct to be made public record. It has been widely reported that Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed Floyd in Minneapolis was later found to have had 18 complaints previously filed against him, including the use of excessive force and violence. In addition, one of the other officers charged who stood by as Floyd cried out for help but did not intervene also had numerous complaints lodged against him.
Our New York City police misconduct attorneys know that getting prior disciplinary records of police officers is always a fight and the defense attorneys use Civil Rights Law 50-A, as a shield to prevent disclosure of an officer's prior misconduct and complaints. While the Federal Courts do not recoginize this State law as creating a privilege in Federal Civil Rights litigation, under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the defendants neverthless, always use the law as an excuse to try to avoid disclosing police officer's prior disciplinary records. The result is that this necessitates needless and prolonged motion practice. In the New York State Courts, our police brutality lawyers have seen mixed results. in some cases, Judges who are inexperienced in Civil Rights cases, just block disclosure of prior misconduct. In other cases, Courts conduct an in camera review. The problem with the Court looking at the documents and determining what is relevant is that the Judges often have a minimal understanding of the case and the attorney prosecuting the case, have a much better understanding of the case and are better prepared to determine what is relevant. Too many Judges will take the position that the complaint was not substantiated so it isn't relevant. This is an incorrect standard, because it allows the standard to be whether the police department, who is judging its own, believes there was misconduct. Our New York police brutality lawyers have seem cases deemed unsubstantiated, despite uncontrovertable evidence of misconduct. The danger in blocking prior complaints of misconduct from disclosure, is that it deprives the jury of the benefit of weighing the officer's credibility. Often police officers will testify to a contrived version of the facts, and it becomes a credibility contest between the police officer in uniform and someone who was arrested, and often times is not the most polished member of society. New York's evidentiary rules allow a witness to be cross examined as any vicious, dishonest or immoral act in their past, so long as there is a good faith basis to believe that it occurred. This is a much lower standard than the substantiated standard. So allowing an officer to be questioned about all their prior misconduct, obviously allows a jury to guage whether the police officer is telling the truth in this case. Removing the barrier of Civil Rights Law 50-A, will go a long way towards transparency, basic fairness in police misconduct litigation and will hopefully remove the defense's abiltiy to stonewall disclosure in police brutality cases.
One June 10, 2020, the New York State Legislature passed critical legislation that will fully repeal 50-a, which up until now has allowed law enforcement to shield police misconduct records from the public. These disciplinary records will now be publicly disclosed, increasing systemic accountability through transparency and taking New York one step forward to addressing police violence in our communities. Over the last eight years, the grassroots advocacy campaign to end police secrecy and repeal 50-a has been led by Communities United for Police Reform and includes families impacted by police brutality. The Innocence Project is proud to be a part of this effort to establish much needed transparency of police misconduct, and in turn prevent further racial injustice and wrongful convictions in New York. We applaud the series of criminal justice reforms that were passed along with 50-a today, which can begin to help address the deep rooted racism and of abuse of power that runs rampant in our criminal justice system.
Our New York City and Westchester lawyers who handle police excessive force cases believe that this is an enormous step forward for police accountability in New York State. At a time when New Yorkers have taken to the streets in the midst of a global pandemic to voice the need for police accountability and racial justice, this is a welcome development. It is our strong hope that now that the veil that had shielded police misconduct from public view has been lifted, countless injustices, including wrongful convictions, can be prevented. This is only one ingredient of authentic accountability but it is the first, crucial step, in bringing some justice to a system that previously prevented it.