Articles Posted in Civil Rights Advocacy

Police in New York have been fighting to block the release of raw, unedited body-worn camera footage by claiming that the footage is a “personnel record” used for performance evaluations and therefore confidential under the Civil Rights Law. However, in a decision released last month, the First Department Appellate Division rejected this theory, which had been put forward by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. In PBA v. DeBlasio, et al., the Appellate Division held that privacy interests of police officers do not transform the bodycam footage into “personnel records” and therefore the footage must generally be released under the Freedom of Information Law.

Screen-Shot-2019-03-13-at-10.37.10-AM-1-275x300.pngApril 2017 marked the beginning of the NYPD’s body-worn camera program, which outfitted 1,300 police officers across 20 precincts with body cameras. The stated purpose of the program was to document the public’s interaction with police and establish a clear record of those encounters, as well as to provide evidence in  civil or criminal proceedings. That purpose was quickly tested on September 6, 2017, when police responded to a report of a Bronx man acting erratically in his apartment. The police responded for a “wellness check” that escalated into a 15-minute standoff ending with the shooting and death of Miguel Richards at the hands of NYPD Officers, all of whom were equipped with body-worn cameras. Our office, along with the Law Offices of Daniel A. McGuinness, P.C., represents Mr. Richards’s family in a lawsuit against the City and the individual police officers.

The entire encounter was caught on tape.

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Screen-Shot-2019-02-21-at-3.18.47-PM-231x300.pngTop New York State officials claimed that they cannot be sued for the sex abuse, cover-up, and retaliation against Yekatrina Pusepa, a female inmate at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, at the hands of a prison guard. Last week, a federal judge said they were wrong.

In October 2017, our office, partnering with the Law Offices of Daniel A. McGuinness, P.C., filed a lawsuit alleging that prison officials created an environment that failed to protect Ms. Pusepa, and other female inmates, from the sexual advances of correction staff. Ms. Pusepa, who was 25 at the time, was repeatedly approached by Corrections Officer Ruben Illa. Illa’s advances were notorious in the prison and, the complaint alleges, prison staff knew what Illa was doing and did nothing to stop it, preferring to hold Ms. Pusepa out as bait to try to catch Illa in the act. On one occasion, Illa groped Ms. Pusepa in her cell while two inmates held up a curtain to block the view. On another, he tried to have sex with her in a supply closet, but got scared off. On December 2, 2015, Illa called Ms. Pusepa out to the prison’s medical clinic for no apparent reason, then wrote her up for being out of place. After resigning from the prison, he pled guilty to filing a false report. He denies the sexual contact.

But Ms. Pusepa’s ordeal did not end with the sex abuse. When she refused to cooperate with a Department of Corrections investigation, she was thrown into solitary confinement on trumped-up charges, purposely left alone with a notoriously violent inmate, and verbally threatened and harassed by prison staff, the suit alleges. According to the lawsuit, top officials including Anthony Annucci, Acting Commissioner of DOCCS, Jason Effman, Associate Commissioner and PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) Coordinator for DOCCS, and Sabina Kaplan, the Superintendent at Bedford Hills were responsible for what happened to Ms. Pusepa because they were deliberately indifferent to the danger she faced from the guard who assaulted her.

32152929167_ec5898bebd_k-300x214Senate Bill S2440, the New York Child Victims Act, was signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday. The new law, which has been a goal of victims’ rights advocates for years, extends the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims to file civil lawsuits, reviving old claims that, until yesterday, were time-barred. It also gives prosecutors more time to bring criminal charges going forward.

Survivors have a year from yesterday to bring civil claims for childhood sexual abuse that were previously barred by a statue of limitations. People who now wish to seek civil damages against their abusers can file a lawsuit, no matter how long ago the conduct occurred, as long as the suit is filed within the next 364 days.

If you were sexually assaulted as a child in New York and might be  interested in seeking damages against the abuser, you should consult an attorney as soon as possible to discuss your options. This second chance to hold your abuser accountable goes away soon. This blog post is not legal advice and only a qualified attorney can advise you about how the new law applies to your particular circumstances.

1024px-EAS_Hall_SIT-300x200Starting this month, I have been teaching an innovative new class about computer crime and high-tech government surveillance at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. The course covers legal developments over the last two decades that have shaped how the government investigates computer crimes, such as computer hacking and the distribution of child pornography, as well as conventional crimes like drug trafficking and fraud that have become more efficient by using new information technologies. The course syllabus can be found here.

The topics we will cover come directly from our hands-on work for clients at the Law Office of Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma over the past couple of years. They include:

  • border agents’ authority to search computer devices at the United States border without a search warrant or suspicion,

IMG_1123-e1539730197788-300x176With a heart full of joy, I had the unique pleasure of attending the wedding of Felipe and Karen Rodriguez last month. Felipe has been my client since the summer of 2015, when I signed up to assist the Innocence Project in representing him in his claim that he was wrongfully convicted of a 1987 homicide in Queens. Gov. Mario Cuomo granted Felipe clemency at the beginning of 2017. The clemency petition really had two parts: Felipe was just about the best inmate the prison system had ever seen, and there was basically no credible evidence supporting his conviction. He renovated the prisons he resided in and counseled serial killers no one else would talk to. He ran a Catholic prayer group and started a newsletter. He was so trusted that he was put in charge of caustic chemicals at one of the prisons he was assigned to. He did 27 years, and we are still fighting to prove his innocence in the courts. Felipe’s case was profiled in detail in the Daily News last Christmas — and he has thrived since then.

After he got out, Felipe was reunited with his son, who had last seen him on the outside as a toddler. But Felipe and Felipe Jr. kept in touch over the years, shedding tears of joy on the meadow in front of Eastern Correctional Facility on the day of Felipe’s release. And Felipe has thrived in the two years he has been out, proving Gov. Cuomo’s judgment to be sound. He works long hours in a hotel and takes care of Karen and her two boys, whom he considers to be his sons. They met as she was waiting tables, and he was lonely and tired after a long day of work. The wedding was a glittering occasion in the greatest tradition of New York City. The ceremony was in an office overlooking Washington Square Park, presided over by a prominent criminal lawyer who was just appointed as a judge. The party afterward was at a nearby Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. The judge was there, along with the former editor-in-chief of the Daily News, the former president of NYU, a retired fire chief that Felipe befriended through the prison ministry, and my brilliant co-counsel on the case, Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project, along with a bevy of Karen’s friends and relatives. Felipe and Karen’s boys danced long past their bedtime.IMG_0707-300x300

The main witness against Felipe has unequivocally recanted his testimony. The district attorney’s office is looking at the case. I believe that it is only a matter of time before Felipe’s exoneration is complete, and the failures that gave rise to his wrongful conviction in 1990 are exposed. Nothing will give Felipe back the 27 years he lost, but he is determined to live a lifetime of joy in the precious years of freedom he has left.

According to an article in the New York Post that was picked up in Newsweek, the City of New York has paid out $384 million in settlements for police abuse cases filed in the last five years. The recipient of the largest slice of that pie? Antonio Yarbough, our client since 2008 who was exonerated in 2014. Antonio  and his co-defendant Sharrif Wilson were framed by NYPD officers for the 1992 slaughter of Antonio’s family by a killer who went on to kill again seven years later and has never been caught. Starting on the day Antonio found his mother, his sister, and a 12-year-old friend stabbed and strangled in Coney Island, he and Sharrif were wrongly imprisoned for nearly 22 years. They were released after DNA found under Antonio’s mother’s fingernails linked the murders to a similar slaying of a young woman in Sunset Park in 1999.

According to the articles, data released by the City’s Corporation Counsel shows that 37 cases were settled for $1 million or more, accounting for about half of the total payout. Most cases were much smaller. Of the more than 11,000 cases that were brought over the five-year time period, only about half settled at all. Three thousand of the cases settled for between $5,000 and $25,000, which is typical for a false arrest that does not lead to more than a night in jail.

Many of the largest settlements like Antonio’s come from a more violent time, when police were overwhelmed with murders and would do anything to close cases. Money can never make up for the wrongful loss of freedom, but these settlements help the victims of police misconduct heal. Hopefully, they also help deter policies and practices that lead to abuses by a small minority of police.

Getting out ahead of the difficult problem of prosecutorial misconduct, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo yesterday signed a bill creating a new commission empowered to investigate allegations against prosecutors. But in a Signing Memorandum dated today, Cuomo announced that the legislature had agreed to modify the bill in the next session to address concerns that it violates the New York State Constitution and could disrupt ongoing criminal cases. Specifically, according to the Signing Memorandum, the law will be immediately amended so that the new commission will not include active, sitting judges; the Appellate Division (rather than the Court of Appeals) will oversee its decisions; and the composition of the eleven-member commission will be “balanced.” In addition, and perhaps more concerning, the amendment will “protect active, pending investigations.” While it is not clear exactly what that means, I suspect that a person with a grievance against a prosecutor during an active criminal case would have to wait until the case is concluded to initiate an investigation by the new commission. That makes sense — but only as long as trial judges maintain their independence and are willing to provide a remedy for prosecutorial misconduct within the criminal case itself.

In the signing statement, the governor clearly endorsed the spirit of the bill as written: “At its core, our criminal justice system must fairly and consistently investigate and prosecute claims, convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent, without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or any other protected classification. When any prosecutor consciously disregards that fundamental duty, communities suffer and lose faith in the system, and they must have a forum to be heard and seek justice.”

In the Daily News yesterday, Judge Frederic Block of the Eastern District of New York — who handled the Jabbar Collins civil suit that ended in a $13 million bill to taxpayers to compensate for police misconduct in Brooklyn — urged Gov. Cuomo to sign the bill creating a commission on prosecutorial conduct. Ethical, self-confident district attorneys will welcome the oversight. The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York is wrongheaded to oppose it.

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Screen-Shot-2018-07-31-at-6.13.17-AM-300x137.png
Wrongful convictions are life-destroying not only to people wrongfully convicted but also to crime victims, especially victims of future crimes that could have been prevented had the right person been prosecuted in the first place. Prosecutors are almost never disciplined, let alone prosecuted themselves, even for the most egregious misconduct such as holding back exculpatory evidence or knowingly presenting coerced testimony.

Judge Block, who has overseen an active criminal docket for nearly a quarter of a century, writes that trial judges are not in a position to prevent prosecutors’ abuse: “If a prosecutor withholds or tampers with evidence, we probably won’t know about it. And even when we discover that prosecutors have committed serious constitutional violations, our power to directly sanction them is extremely limited.”

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.

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.

Super Lawyers
Top 100 Trial Lawyers
NACDL
Super Lawyers
The National Trial Lawyers