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Oral argument will be heard tomorrow before the Hon. John L. Michalski in Erie County Supreme Court on one simple question: are Brian Lorenzo and James Pugh entitled to DNA testing?

The two men have been in prison for the past quarter century for the stabbing-and-strangling murder of Deborah Meindl, a 33-year-old mother of two, in North Tonawanda, near Buffalo, New York. The crime scene was brimming with biological evidence, none of it ever tested by modern methods. Our client, Jimmy Pugh, has always maintained his innocence, even though he is eligible for parole. No physical evidence linked him in any way to the crime scene and there is no evidence that he knew the victim, her family, or anyone associated with him. The crime scene evidence is carefully preserved in a police locker. DNA testing can exonerate Pugh and Lorenzo — or decisively prove their guilt once and for all.

Nonetheless the Erie County District Attorney’s Office opposes any DNA testing.

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photo_55295_20151127-300x236Your phone constantly tracks and records its location and transmits the information to your wireless carrier. Most phone companies keep that data — known as “cell site location information” — for up to five years. And until last week, it was pretty much available to the government for the asking.

Think for a moment what that means. If you went to a psychiatrist, a divorce lawyer, an AA meeting, a yoga class, or a 1980s dance party in the last five years, any policeman in the country could find out about it just by asking the phone company where your phone was at a given moment in time. It is as though the government placed permanent tracking devices on all of us. True, under federal law, the police had to ask for a court order under the Stored Communications Act based on a showing that the cell site data was “relevant and material to an ongoing investigation.” But that is a ridiculously low standard: pretty much anything an investigator wants to see can be tied to an investigation one way or another. Orders under 18 U.S.C. Section 2703(d) were, in practice, routinely granted by both state and federal courts.

All that changed last Friday when a fractured Supreme Court ruled in Carpenter v. U.S. that grabbing cell site data constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment. That means that use of cell site data must be reasonable. For police investigations, a search is only reasonable if it is based on a search warrant supported by probable cause. Probable cause, the Court explained, is something more than the low standard in Sec. 2703(d): “relevant and material” just means cell site evidence “might be pertinent to an ongoing investigation,” whereas probable cause requires a “quantum of individualized suspicion” before police can start rummaging. So a Section 2703(d) subpoena is not enough to support obtaining cell site data. Mr. Carpenter’s conviction, based in part on cell site location data showing his phone was near several stores at the time they were robbed, was thrown out.

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https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Screen-Shot-2018-06-21-at-9.47.54-AM-300x146.pngOn Tuesday, the New York State Assembly passed A. 5285-C, the State Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct bill that passed the Senate in a surprise vote last week. Now it’s up to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign it into law. Groups like Human Rights Watch and the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers will be pushing him to do just that, which would create the country’s only investigative body exclusively investigating misconduct by prosecutors.

At the same time, some district attorneys around the state are likely to lobby to stop the bill. They will complain that a commission would have too much power, would dampen their ability to enforce the law fairly, and could interfere with ongoing prosecutions. They will see a violation of separation-of-powers and uncabined discretion vested in unelected commissioners including criminal defense lawyers bent on obstructing the work of prosecutors. Litigation will follow.

So what does the proposed law actually say? The full text is available here or by clicking the graphic above. In fact, the proposal is modest. The commission will be made up of volunteer judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers appointed by the governor and the legislature. It may investigate virtually any complaint against a prosecutor. It will have subpoena power. Its business will generally be conducted in public. But it won’t have any remedy with teeth: at the end of its investigation, all it can do is refer its findings to the governor or an appropriate court. It would be up to the governor or court to take action, removing a prosecutor for cause in appropriate circumstances. In other words, all the commission can do is serve as a conduit for information — information that an unscrupulous prosecutor’s colleagues have an ethical obligation to report in any event.

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Prosecutors in New York state who commit even egregious misconduct are virtually untouchable. In today’s New York Times, Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project chronicles a Suffolk County homicide prosecutor who not only held back exculpatory evidence, but doctored documents to try to actively hide them from the court. After a little digging, it turned out that the same prosecutor, Glenn Kurtzrock, was responsible for misconduct in four additional cases. If you or I did that, we would go to jail.

But not a prosecutor.

As Ms. Morrison writes: “So what’s happened to Mr. Kurtzrock? Nothing. Thirteen months after his public firing, and five murder cases overturned because of his illegal actions, Mr. Kurtzrock hasn’t been charged with a single crime. Not fraud, not tampering with government records, not contempt of court.” Moreover, he cannot be sued. A long line of Supreme Court cases gives prosecutors “absolute immunity” from civil rights suits, even when they directly violate someone’s constitutional right to exculpatory evidence, as Mr. Kurtzrock apparently did.

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Under the Sex Offender Registration Act, registered sex offenders must tell New York State about all “internet accounts with internet access providers” and “internet identifiers that such offender uses.” Does that mean you have to disclose your social media accounts?

Most police and the the State Division of Criminal Justice Services would have said yes. Police agencies routinely scour the internet looking for sex offenders who are on social media but have not properly disclosed their presence. People always thought hiding a social media account was a felony — failure to register under Corrections Law Sec. 168-t.

Turns out it is not.

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https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Screen-Shot-2018-05-09-at-10.26.52-AM-300x298.pngThe abrupt resignation of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman Monday night left the legal community scratching its head. How could such a bright star, who consistently used the power of his office to fight for just causes, especially for women, have fallen in such rapid and spectacular fashion?

The answer, of course, is that people are complicated.

Schneiderman’s initial response to the New Yorker’s story about four women accusing him of abuse was not encouraging: in a statement quoted in the article he asserted that he never assaulted anyone but admitted he engaged in “role-playing and other consensual sexual activity” in the “privacy of intimate relationships.”  In essence, he told the New Yorker he didn’t do it, but if he did do it, it was consensual.

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Last week, President Trump signed legislation that expands criminal liability for people who own or operate online platforms that “promote or facilitate” not only sex trafficking, but virtually any consensual sex work. The new law, which amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”), is commonly referred to as the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (“FOSTA”), or by its Senate name, the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA).”

The FOSTA-SESTA amendment to the CDA is fairly short, but raises questions about how it will be enforced by prosecutors and plaintiffs’ attorneys granted a private right of action under the law. Under the new law:

  1. Anyone who “owns, manages, or operates” an online platform or “conspires or attempts to do
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A new law should close an “egregious loophole” that had allowed police officers who sexually assault prisoners to defend themselves by claiming their prisoner consented to the sexual activity. That’s the last thing an 18-year-old woman using the pseudonym Anna Chambers expected to hear when she filed rape charges against two New York City detectives last year.

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Screen-Shot-2018-04-03-at-12.16.52-PM-300x171.pngAccording to Buzzfeed News, in September 2017, Detectives Eddie Martins and Richard Hall stopped Chambers and two friends after allegedly spotting marijuana in the front cupholder of their car. They took Chambers into custody but let her friends go. Then, according to the Buzzfeed report, Martins and Hall forced Chambers into an unmarked police van, where they took turns raping her for almost an hour. Eventually, she was released onto the side of the road. She immediately contacted a friend, who rushed her to the hospital to complete a rape kit. The DNA collected from the kit matched both Martins and Hall, according to Buzzfeed. Chambers assumed that her case against the detectives was a slam dunk: after all, there was positive proof that they had sex with her after detaining her and while they were on duty.

The last thing Chambers expected was for Martins and Hall to claim consent. Remarkably, even though it is illegal for parole officers or corrections officers to have sex with people in jail, the same standard did not apply to police officers who take people into custody. Buzzfeed reported that New York was one of 35 states with a legal loophole that permits law enforcement officials to have consensual sexual relations with detainees in their custody.

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Victoria-Medley-headshot-225x300New York City criminal defense and civil rights lawyer Victoria N. Medley, Esq. has joined the Law Office of Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma as an associate, expanding our reach, capacity and expertise in New York’s state and federal courts.  Ms. Medley comes to us from the firm of Perlmutter & McGuinness, P.C., which recently dissolved when leading criminal attorney Adam Perlmutter became a judge on the New York City Criminal Court. Our office continues to work with the newly-formed Law Offices of Daniel A. McGuinness, PC on high-impact civil rights cases. Ms. Medley was part of the team that won a $26 million settlement last year for two wrongfully convicted men.

Ms. Medley graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 2014, where she led the school’s local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. While still in law school, she interned with Gideon’s Promise, a non-profit that supports public defenders.  In that position, Ms. Medley second-chaired two trials and assisted in felony, magistrate, and family court matters.  After graduating, she completed a fellowship at the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Appeals Bureau, where she represented indigent clients appealing their cases.

At the Law Office of Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, Ms. Medley will focus on defending individuals accused of serious crimes including fraud, sex crimes, and computer crimes. She will also continue her work on behalf  victims of civil rights abuses, including prisoners who suffer sexual abuse and individuals injured by police misconduct. Her presence will allow us to expand our criminal and civil rights practices, providing zealous advocacy for individuals and ensuring that their rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are secured and promoted.

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photo_47832_20151022-300x191A mysterious young man from New Jersey might be able to run, but he can’t hide from a federal lawsuit seeking money damages for what he did to our client. That’s how a federal judge ruled, as the New York Law Journal reported last week.

Last October, our office filed a complaint in federal court alleging that Yosef Gerszberg had raped a 23-year-old actress the same night he met her at a dinner party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Before filing the complaint, we mailed Mr. Gerszberg a copy with a letter suggesting that he hire a lawyer, have the lawyer call us, and try to settle the case before going to court. A lawyer did call us, outraged, and said he was going to “countersue” us and the victim for a litany of grievances. It seemed clear that Mr. Gerszberg did not want to settle, so we went ahead and filed the lawsuit.

But Mr. Gerszberg did not respond. He did not just blow a deadline, he tried to ignore the fact that he was being sued for a serious sexual assault. So we had the papers hand-delivered to his last-known address, in Englewood, New Jersey. It was a swanky house, where, it happened, a gentleman by the name of Seth Gerszberg also appeared to live. After the younger Mr. Gerszberg continued to ignore the lawsuit against him, Judge Richard Sullivan of the Southern District of New York set the case down for a “default hearing” — meaning a hearing to determine whether a judgment should be entered against the younger Mr. Gerzsberg for failing to respond to the lawsuit. But a middle-aged man appeared at the hearing and told the court he lives in the swanky house and that the defendant has not lived there in more than a year. The man’s name was Seth Gerzberg. He said he had two adoptive sons and both, in fact, were named Yosef Gerzberg. But one of them also went by the name of Surab Bilich, and that was the person named in the lawsuit. The other Yosef Gerszberg, Seth advised us, had nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, Seth did not know where young Surab/Yosef lived or where he worked. He did have a phone number and an email for the young man. Judge Sullivan ordered him to turn them over.