Legal Aid Calls on Bronx DA to Immediately Dismiss Charges Against Client Who Lost Left Eye During Violent Arrest by NYPD Officer Theresa Lustica


The Legal Aid Society calls on Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark to dismiss charges against Johanna Pagan-Alomar, a Legal Aid client who was brutally assaulted during a violent arrest last June by New York City Police Officer Theresa Lustica. While she was beating Ms. Pagan-Alomar, Officer Lustica’s handcuff keys gouged out Ms. Pagan-Alomar’s left eye resulting in the loss of that eye.

Legal Aid also calls upon the NYPD to fire Officer Lustica immediately for this brazen misconduct, and to discipline her partner, Officer Konti Markvukaj, for not intervening to stop Officer Lustica’s assault.

“For the rest of her life, Ms. Pagan-Alomar will be reminded daily of that morning in June when Officer Lustica attacked her so viciously that she lost her left eye,” said Ms. Pagan-Alomar’s attorney, Nicolas Schumann-Ortega, of The Legal Aid Society’s Bronx Criminal Defense Practice. “It is shameful that the Bronx District Attorney continues to drag this case on, and that Officer Lustica continues to walk the beat endangering the people of this community she supposedly serves. In the interest of justice, this case must be dismissed immediately, and Officer Lustica must be fired and charged criminally for this horrific assault.”

As reported in today’s New York Daily News, on June 11, 2018, Ms. Pagan-Alomar observed NYPD officers speaking with her friend at the corner of Burnside and Jerome Avenues in the Bronx. After Ms. Pagan-Alomar’s friend was handcuffed, Ms. Pagan-Alomar inquired about the arrest to Officers Lustica and Markvukaj.

According to Ms. Pagan-Alomar, Officer Lustica responded by picking up a small, empty plastic bag from the ground, said to Ms. Pagan-Alomar that this was the reason for arresting her friend, then aggressively waved the bag in front of Ms. Pagan-Alomar’s face, almost striking her with it.

This encounter quickly escalated, with Officer Lustica then throwing Ms. Pagan-Alomar to the ground face-up, and placing one leg on each of Ms. Pagan-Alomar’s arms. Officer Lustica then repeatedly punched Ms. Pagan-Alomar with both fists in her left eye and left facial area. While punching Ms. Pagan-Alomar, Officer Lustica placed handcuff keys in between her fingers, thereby inflicting severe and irreparable damage by poking Ms. Pagan-Alomar’s eye out of its socket.

Instead of immediately taking Ms. Pagan-Alomar to the hospital for prompt treatment that might have mitigated the damage they had inflicted, the police officers arrested her and took her to the 46th Precinct. The police contacted emergency care only after seeing what must have been obvious from the outset -- that Ms. Pagan-Alomar’s left eye was hanging out of its socket.

Ms. Pagan-Alomar spent the next five days in the hospital, and underwent multiple emergency procedures to repair damage to her face in a fruitless attempt to save her left eye.

A medical expert who reviewed and analyzed Ms. Pagan-Alomar’s hospital records detailing the type of injuries she sustained said that, “Johanna Pagan-Alomar sustained a horrific, painful, traumatizing left eye injury…This type of injury is painful both physically and mentally, as this is trauma that Ms. Pagan-Alomar will need to live with for the rest of her life. In my 20 years of nursing, working in many different areas of critical care, I have never witnessed such an extensive eye injury. In reviewing Ms. Pagan-Alomar’s records, it was painful and emotional as a Practitioner to try and understand how such trauma could be put upon an individual.”

Despite Ms. Pagan-Alomar’s pain and suffering, prosecutors have dragged this low-level misdemeanor case on for more than ten months.

In January, Ms. Pagan-Alomar filed a lawsuit for damages against the New York City Police Department naming Officers Lustica and Markvukaj as defendants.


March 26, 9:30 AM

If you were a public assistance or SNAP recipient between July 2007 and December 2015 and were sanctioned for failure to comply with work rules, you may be eligible to receive a payment or other relief under the settlement in the Smith v. Proud litigation. 

There will be a fairness hearing in Supreme Court, New York County on March 26, 2019 for the judge to decide whether to approve the settlement. 

The Intercept: Donald Trump’s Anti-immigrant Agenda Faces Another Setback in Court

A pair of teenage boys in the yard of a migrant shelter for unaccompanied minors in Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 5, 2018. Photo: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

A pair of teenage boys in the yard of a migrant shelter for unaccompanied minors in Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 5, 2018. Photo: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

By Akela Lacy
March 21 2019

Donald Trump’s plan to deprive noncitizen immigrants of legal protections has suffered another setback.

The Trump administration broke the law when it denied hundreds of visa applications for immigrants who had been abused, neglected, or abandoned by a parent as minors under the Special Immigrant Juvenile program, a federal judge ruled on Friday.

The ruling is the latest in a string of federal court decisions rebuking the Trump administration’s attempts to drastically restrict immigration to the United States. Federal judges have blocked Trump’s attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA, at least four times. In December, federal judges issued a preliminary injunction against the White House’s proposed asylum ban, and denied requests by the federal government to stay a temporary restraining order against it. The Justice Department appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the initial order blocking the ban.

The SIJ visa program, which was created in 1990, affords protected status to minors who were abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents. It allows them to seek a green card, which grants lawful permanent residence in the United States. In February 2018, however, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services quietly issued internal guidance that led to a denial of applications for people who applied for SIJ status after they’d turned 18.

The agency never publicized the change, but it came to light after immigration attorneys began receiving notices that their clients would have their SIJ status denied or revoked. USCIS argued that family courts could not exercise custody over adults, and that they therefore don’t have the power to reunify applicants with a parent. (Family courts were involved in the process to determine whether an applicant was eligible for the program, which included determining whether reunification was viable.)

The Trump administration has characterized the SIJ program as being susceptible to abuse by criminals trying to enter the United States, without substantiating those claims. In a February press release that was unrelated to the SIJ policy change, DHS called to “end abuse” of the SIJ visa and claimed that unaccompanied immigrant children and their families are “Flooding the Border Because of Catch and Release Loopholes.” The agency argued that many unaccompanied minors “are able to obtain a Green Card through SIJ status even though they were smuggled here to reunify with one parent present in the United States,” and that the “influx of unaccompanied alien minors also creates recruiting opportunities for brutal gangs such as MS-13.” Last March, during Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s “Operation Matador,” the agency said it arrested 64 MS-13 members who had crossed the border as unaccompanied minors and received SIJ status.

BY THE TIME the February 2018 guidance was issued, it had been apparent for several months that the agency’s approach to the SIJ program was changing. As early as October 2017, USCIS began sending notices to young immigrants and their attorneys that it would deny requests for Special Immigrant Juvenile status made after applicants turned 18. Among them, a 21-year-old from El Salvador who’d fled threats from local gangs, including MS-13, that had been trying to recruit him since he was a teenager. Another, a 22-year-old from Haiti whose aunts physically beat her as a young child and whose father later abandoned her. Most of the denials happened in New York. Some had already had their applications approved, and others were still awaiting final decisions.

That was a major departure from the way USCIS used to handle SIJ applications. Before 2018, the agency regularly granted the special visas to minors who applied between the ages of 18 and 20. The program remains open to anyone under age 21. USCIS says the change was part of a 2016 policy update that streamlined the visa application review process, and that the February guidance clarified that officers should deny any requests submitted after the applicant had already turned 18.

Advocates, however, saw the move as part of a larger project by Trump to restrict immigration to the U.S., and to target the most vulnerable groups of people in the process. The February 2018 guidance prompted USCIS to internally review 5,500 cases that were put on hold. At least 260 applicants received denials, and at least 130 were told that they should expect their applications to be rejected.

“The administration has painted Special Immigrant Juvenile status as a ‘loophole,’” Beth Krause, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society, told The Intercept. In July, together with Latham and Watkins LLP, Legal Aid brought a class-action suit against USCIS for the over-18 SIJ denials. They asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction to halt the implementation of the change, arguing that USCIS claims that New York Family Courts lacked jurisdiction as juvenile courts for people between the ages of 18 and 21 were part of an “arbitrary and capricious” policy, and imposed requirements that were outside the law.

“It has not been a secret that they have been trying to narrow the availability of Special Immigrant Juvenile status,” Krause said. The number of SIJ applications has skyrocketed over the past decade, from 1,600 in fiscal year 2010 to 21,800 in fiscal year 2018.

“They have expressed that this is — whether a loophole, or a way that MS-13 is getting status in the U.S., they were going after this status,” Krause explained.

A FEDERAL JUDGE ruled on Friday that in changing its processes, USCIS broke the law. Judge John Koeltl of the U.S. Court for the Southern District of New York issued an injunction halting the change, and granted class status to the plaintiffs, allowing them to proceed anonymously. Plaintiffs have until Friday to submit proposals for how to proceed with the hundreds of cases impacted by the policy change. In a separate case, another federal judge last week allowed a class action suit in the Northern District of California against the over-18 SIJ denials to proceed. In that case, the judge had already issued a preliminary injunction against the USCIS policy.

USCIS has argued that there was no policy change, but has acknowledged that it only started denying over-18 SIJ applications in early 2018. The agency argues that in those cases, it found that New York Family Courts didn’t have jurisdiction to make the custody determinations necessary to establish eligibility for SIJ status. Koeltl said that claim “is based on a misunderstanding of New York State law.”

“The agency’s lack of a reasoned explanation for a policy that requires a departure from years of agency practice ‘results in a rule that cannot carry the force of law,’” Koeltl wrote, quoting the Supreme Court decision in Encino Motorcars v. Navarro.

Krause said the order is applicable to cases outside of New York too. “This decision will certainly impact the cases that are already ongoing in California and Washington. It will certainly help other advocates that are considering filing actions against the government on their over-18 SIJ denials,” she told The Intercept.

“It also just reaffirms our perception of how this administration has been intentionally targeting some of the most vulnerable populations,” Krause continued. “We saw right through it. The judge saw through it. And they can’t act in this manner. The administration can’t, through policymaking, change statute. They can’t change the law that way. That has to be done through the legislative process.”

Federal courts have blocked attempts by the Trump administration to impose similar immigration regulations in other areas. In October, a federal court issued an injunction stopping a White House attempt to end Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, and El Salvador. In August, another federal judge upheld a lower-court ruling blocking Trump’s executive order threatening to cut federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities that refused to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services in September proposed a rule change that would allow immigrant families and children to be held for indefinite periods in unlicensed facilities. Attorneys in that case argue that the change violates the Flores settlement, which sets guidelines for the length of time and the conditions in which migrant children can be detained. A judge temporarily suspended a motion by plaintiffs to block the change until the agencies issue final regulations. The parties are in confidential mediation on other aspects of the case.

Documented: Immigration Hearings in New York Are Being Rescheduled Without Notice

By Felipe De La Hoz
March 20, 2019

New York Immigration attorneys are scrambling to adequately represent their detained clients after hearings were abruptly rescheduled or advanced by a factor of weeks without consultation, agreement or timely notice.

Attorneys in both city’s public defender services and the private bar described realizing that individual hearings had been rescheduled and in some cases assigned to an entirely different judge only after checking an online portal known as I3, which has case information. During individual hearings, a respondent and their attorney present evidence to an immigration judge, arguing for relief from deportation, such as granting asylum or cancellation of removal. These hearings typically require intensive preparation.

“There have been at least two dozen clients who, only through checking the portal have we learned that their individual hearings, scheduled mostly for June, have just been unilaterally rescheduled for dates as early as next week, and there has been no notice, no phone call,” said Sarah Deri Oshiro, the managing director of immigration practice at The Bronx Defenders. The Bronx group is one of three public defender organizations that make up the city-financed New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP).

Unlike master calendar hearings, in which an immigrant offers an initial response to the governments’ charges and indicates their preference for relief, individual hearings are complex, multi-hour affairs that involve hundreds of pages of evidence, witness testimony, and examination and cross-examination of the respondent by both their own attorney and the federal government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorney. Given the extent of the preparation required, hearings are usually set weeks or months in advance, with a ‘call-up date’ for evidence to be submitted around fifteen days before the hearing. That’s to ensure all parties have time enough to review.

It takes time to gather evidence

Cases being moved around the calendar by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) without warning throws a wrench into the process. Among the evidence that attorneys often present on behalf of their clients are signed letters of support from community members, documentation from past arrests and criminal convictions (which may need to be retrieved individually from courts), and financial and medical documents that attorneys must obtain directly from providers.

Collecting and review that evidence may be impossible if a hearing set for June is suddenly rescheduled to the end of March. Witnesses and the attorneys may also have conflicting commitments that could prevent them from attending the hearings.

“I have [attorneys] with trials advanced that are literally out of the country, people with preexisting conflicts, people on pre-approved leave, and [EOIR] didn’t even bother to tell us,” said Andrea Sáenz, the attorney-in-charge of Brooklyn Defender Services’ NYIFUP practice. “Someone, somewhere, thought ‘we can hear the case anytime, anywhere, it doesn’t matter if you have an attorney or the evidence.’ ”

A private attorney who preferred not to be identified said that he had found cases rescheduled to dates so imminent that their evidence call-up dates had already passed, and it wasn’t clear whether judges would accept it, or have to reschedule the case yet again. “I can’t turn it around that quick. I have 700 active immigration cases, I can’t do it like that,” the attorney said. Other attorneys with lighter immigration caseloads might not bother to check the I3 portal and miss their cases altogether, which could result in clients being ordered deported, this attorney said. Rescheduling had also resulted in multiple hearings occurring at different courts around the state on the same day, the attorney said. “Physically, I can’t do it,” the attorney said.

The date reshuffling may be the result of EOIR’s effort to clear the court backlog, which threatens to break one million cases soon. New courtrooms have opened on the renovated fifth floor of New York’s Varick Street facility, which heard their first detained individual hearings Monday afternoon, overseen by immigration judges Mimi Tsankov and Margaret Kolbe. Both judges were relocated from the federal facility at 26 Federal Plaza. An additional five non-detained courtrooms are slated to open soon. Some attorneys complained that cases not only had been rescheduled, but the presiding judges switched, which they viewed as violation of due process.

EOIR wants cases completed quickly

As attorneys protested to court clerks and the court administrator, some rescheduled cases were scheduled back to their original dates or taken off the calendar entirely, adding to the confusion. Other cases were apparently still being advanced this week, or taken off the calendar from dates in June.

In an email responding to questions about the case rescheduling, EOIR spokesman John Martin wrote, “EOIR prioritizes all detained cases. Please see the January 2018 priorities memo for more information.” The memo written by EOIR Director James McHenry laid out benchmarks for case proceedings, stating that 85 percent of detained cases should be completed within 60 days of the case being started, reopened, remanded from a higher court, or the notification of detention.

Martin declined to comment on the court processing standards referenced in the EOIR memo which state that the “[c]ommencement of trials on the original date scheduled with adequate advance notice,” as “now being implemented by EOIR.” Nor did he comment on the issue raised by attorneys that, if they are forced to show up in court without evidence and witnesses, judges will likely have to issue a continuance for the case, leading to further delays. A clerk at the Varick Street court referred questions to Acting Court Administrator Rachel Newsome, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Federal regulations require that all parties must be informed of the date and time of a hearing in immigration court in advance, but there don’t appear to be clear policies or case law about when such notification must occur. In some cases, attorneys have complained of mailed notices arriving after the scheduled dates of hearings.

“It’s very clear talking with the clerks and the administrative staff that this comes from above somehow,” said Sáenz of Brooklyn Defender Services. Jen Williams, the deputy attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law Unit, said that clerks they’d been able to get in touch with had been evasive and insisted that attorneys had to take up the matter of date changes directly with the immigration judges.

In theory, the attorneys are not opposed to speeding up their clients’ cases. The Bronx Defenders joined other groups in suing the federal government over how long clients were held in detention without a first hearing.

However, the risk that hearings can be summarily rescheduled without communication or consultation, makes it impossible to prepare for what can be life-and-death cases. “These are complex cases. These things take time. It’s going to be an easy narrative for the government to say ‘what’s the problem, these people are going to see judges sooner, they’re not languishing in detention.’ It’s such a calculated assault on due process,” said Williams.

On Tuesday, one of Legal Aid’s clients had a hearing that was advanced from June 26. Williams said the attorney was forced to show up without any of the evidence for the case. According to her, Immigration Judge Charles Conroy asked if the parties could move forward with testimony anyway, to which the attorney objected.

When the attorney asked the judge for an explanation of why the case had been moved up, “he got annoyed with us and said, ‘counselor, you know that cases are being advanced to move detained cases along,’ ” and referenced the prioritization issue, said Williams. Conroy then agreed to a 60-day adjournment, rescheduling the case for May 17, over a month prior to the original date.

Welcome to the New Leaders in CDP Trial Offices, CAB and DNA

Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice, announced the following promotions:

Bahar Ansari - Bahar joined LAS in 2006 as a Staff Attorney in JRP after graduating from CUNY Law School. She transferred to CDP in 2010 and has been in the Brooklyn Trial office ever since. Recently, Bahar returned to her alma mater after being afforded the incredible opportunity to co-teach as a Clinical Law Professor at CUNY alongside Professor Steve Zeidman. Bahar writes, “I am incredibly grateful for my amazing colleagues, supervisors and clients who have inspired, motivated and taught me so much over the past 12 years. I look forward to repaying the favor in my new role. My door (and email) is always open! Please reach out with your questions and thoughts on how I can continue to help build a creative, supportive and affirming workplace.” Bahar will remain in Brooklyn in her new role.

Ray Beauchamp - Ray is currently with our Bronx Trial office. He joined CDP in 2010 after graduating from Fordham University School of Law. Ray will be a Supervising Attorney in our Manhattan Trial Office. Ray writes, “ Legal Aid has been at the center of my life for the last eight and a half years. I came here to defend the least well off in their worst moments. What I discovered was a community of others -- attorneys, investigators, social workers, support staff -- singularly devoted to the same worthy goal. Transitioning to the supervisor position, I look forward to continuing my path, but also assisting everyone else in this great work. I will do so in a new Borough, an opportunity to forge new relationships. I know I will find like-minded folks sharing the same mission. I hope to be welcomed and look forward to joining the Manhattan fight.”

Dana Cohen - Dana is on our Brooklyn Trial Office and will remain there in her new role. Dana has over 20 years of experience and came to LAS from The Legal Aid Society of Nassau County. Dana writes, “I am looking forward to this opportunity to mentor and assist the amazing attorneys at CDP in their daily fight on behalf of our clients. Because we often face conflict in our role as criminal defense attorneys – from the court, from the prosecution, and even sometimes from our own clients – it is important to be able to count on and turn to each other for support. I am excited to start this new chapter of my career at The Legal Aid Society.”

Andrea Ferrante - Andrea is a staff attorney in our Staten Island Trial office. Andrea has worked at the Legal Aid Society since 2007, starting her career first at Brooklyn CDP. During her time with us, she was fortunate enough to be able to earn her LL.M. in International Law. She will remain in Staten Island in her new role as a Supervising Attorney. Andrea states, “I look forward to supporting our staff members as they zealously defend our clients as well as mentoring new attorneys entering the Society to take on the important cause of representing the people of Staten Island that need us the most.”

Juliette-Noor Haji - In 2010 Juliette-Noor joined CDP and has been with our Queens Trial Office. Since that time she has dedicated herself to the communities we serve and will now join the leadership team of the office. As she takes on this new role, she wants everyone to know “As attorneys within CDP, with the support of investigators, forensic social workers and support staff, we are often the only means of making our clients’ voices heard in a system riddled with racial and socioeconomic injustice. I am grateful for the opportunity to provide , as a Supervising Attorney, the support needed for my colleagues to continue the daily battle, both in and outside of the courtroom, to fight for our clients’ rights.”

Jeff Lee - “I’m excited for this new opportunity at LAS and vow to make my most of it. We are lucky enough to work at the best public defender’s office in the country and I look forward to collaborating with my colleagues, sharing what I’ve learned from all the tremendous lawyers who work here, and bettering myself as an advocate. I’m always available to talk or email with any of you. Additionally, I vow to finally have my online OCA access reinstated after being locked out because of too many invalid log-ins. “ Jeff brings commitment to clients, incredible litigation experience and a keen sense of humor to his work. He joined CDP in 2005, starting off in our Parole Revocation Defense Unit, after graduating from the Boston University School of Law. In 2007 Jeff joined CDP’s Brooklyn Trial office, where he will remain in his new role.

Maria Martinez - Maria has dedicated her career to serving our clients and communities in the Queens trial Office where she has litigated incredibly difficult cases and raised awareness of the unjust discovery practices and Brady violations of the District Attorney’s Office. Maria will bring her litigation experience and dedication to the Manhattan Trial Office in the Spring . Last night, Maria took a few minutes away from her most recent trial prep to write, “I joined the Queens CDP at The Legal Aid Society in 2011. I am thrilled and honored to have been selected as a supervisor. Since my first day, I have been truly grateful for the supportive and collaborative environment at CDP. I look forward to fostering that same approach as a member of this team, where together we can support and advance the mission of the Society.”

Jon Stonbely - Since graduating from the CUNY School of Law in 2007, Jon has served clients in both the Parole Revocation Defense Unit and the Manhattan Trial Office. Jon has consistently sought opportunities to mentor, helping new lawyers find their own styles and develop confidence in their work. Jon writes, “I am ecstatic about the opportunity to focus on promoting best practices and client-centered representation as a Supervising Attorney in the Manhattan Trial Office, and am committed to optimizing office harmony and the use of collaborative casework in order to most effectively combat the unfair practices of our adversaries and obtain the best results for our clients and client communities.”

In addition to the new leadership in our trial offices, I am pleased to announce that the DNA Unit and CDP’s newly launched Wrongful Conviction Unit also have two new supervisors joining the management team!

Terri Rosenblatt, DNA Unit - Terri Rosenblatt has been promoted to supervising attorney of the DNA Unit and will now spearhead that unit’s work. Terri brings a wealth of experience to the work. She has represented clients in cases involving DNA and other complex forensic evidence in hearings and trial. In her role as DNA Unit staff attorney, she has advised attorney in all five boroughs concerning forensic science issues. Terri has drafted model forensic motions and, through CLE programs, she has instructed on such issues, both internally and externally. Terri has written published articles concerning forensic issues, spearheaded affirmative litigation efforts, and has spoken with criminal justice stakeholders to protect civil liberties and make our courts fairer. Terri came to Legal Aid after working, most recently, as a partner at the Law Offices of Joel Rudin, and before that as the DNA Specialist at the Bronx Defenders. Terri states, “I am honored to have been selected as Supervisor of LAS’s DNA Unit. The lawyers in our Unit are leaders in advocating for our clients in the face of some of the most challenging evidence there is. I look forward to working across all of LAS’s practices to fight for our clients in court, protect their genetic privacy, and push back against unreliable forensics.”

Elizabeth Felber, Wrongful Conviction Unit - Under Elizabeth’s leadership, the unit will review claims of innocence both from previously assigned clients and those who reach out to the Legal Aid Society seeking exoneration. The unit will work closely with the Criminal Appeals Bureau to investigate possible avenues of relief, including untested biological evidence, newly discovered evidence, and claims of government misconduct. The Wrong Convictions Unit will with work legislators and other advocacy groups to advance reform initiatives to prevent future wrongful convictions and remedy past ones.

Liz has most recently served as a supervising attorney in the Bronx Criminal Defense Practice. During her tenure as a supervisor, she litigated wrongful conviction cases involving newly discovered evidence and Brady violations, two of which resulted in exonerations. She investigated homicide cases that were overturned on appeal. Elizabeth previously worked in the Criminal Appeals Bureau both as an appellate attorney and as the resource attorney in the Bronx. Prior to being an appellate attorney, Elizabeth worked in both the Brooklyn Criminal Defense Practice and the Federal Defenders Eastern District. She has also litigated false confessions as well as habeas corpus claims in the Eastern District of New York. Liz writes, “I am honored and excited to be supervising the newly created wrongful conviction unit here at The Legal Aid Society. With the addition of an investigator and paralegal specifically dedicated to investigating and litigating wrongful claims, we plan to obtain exonerations for persons who have been protesting their innocence for years. The Legal Aid Society is uniquely qualified to take on this challenge because of the depth and breadth of expertise of our staff. We anticipate working collaboratively with trial attorneys, as well as the DNA unit, Digital Forensics, student interns and pro bono attorneys. If you have received letters from persons seeking assistance in achieving their exoneration, please send them along to the wrongful conviction unit.”

New York’s Immigrant Legal Defenders to Call on City for More Support to Fight Increased ICE Detention and Deportation


The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services, and The Bronx Defenders – New York City’s defender organizations providing free legal representation through the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) to detained immigrants with pending cases at the Varick Street Immigration Court – will call on the City later today at a City Council budget hearing to allocate $16.6 million in funding for Fiscal Year 2020 to defend immigrant New Yorkers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention and deportation.

On Monday, the Varick Street Immigration Court opened two additional detained courtrooms with minimal information or coordination with the NYIFUP providers or others in the defense bar. This will increase the number of initial hearings dockets each week without NYIFUP having the additional resources needed to staff them. The FY2020 request is critical to fully addressing the anticipated demand for representation and to fulfill New York City’s commitment that no family be torn apart by deportation because they could not afford a lawyer.

“The Trump Administration has launched an unprecedented attack on immigrant communities and families, including record numbers of immigrants arrested, in detention, and facing deportation. Without this funding, 40% of immigrants detained in New York may not receive NYIFUP counsel, and we will once again see New Yorkers facing detention and deportation alone while trained ICE attorneys, more empowered than ever, argue unopposed for their deportation. People will be deported away from their families, often to persecution or death, without knowing they may have had a strong defense,” said the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project.

Without this funding, hundreds of New Yorkers will miss out on one of the most successful programs to win release in the United States. NYIFUP regularly wins the release on bond of hundreds of clients a year, who then return to their families and jobs – and NYIFUP then continues their excellent representation on the non-detained docket at Federal Plaza, where they have over 1,000 cases pending of people who were once detained but won release. Most of these people are eligible for forms of legal relief that could allow them to stay in New York with their families.

New Challenges at Varick Street Immigration Court

Since 2014, the City Council has funded NYIFUP to represent detained individuals in Federal immigration enforcement custody facing deportation. The program has represented over 4,000 people since its inception on a universal representation, public defender model, and has won the release of thousands of people to their family members. An in-depth two year study by the Vera Institute of Justice found that 48% of NYIFUP cases were projected to result in victory, improving the chances of success for clients by an incredible 1,100% over unrepresented people.

NYIFUP has been an inspiration for dozens of deportation defense pilots in cities and states across America, including the SAFE Cities Network of programs, starting a revolution in immigrant defense and is fighting for the right for all immigrants facing deportation nationally to have a right to counsel.

In 2018, NYIFUP faced new challenges from the Trump Administration including a switch to all-video hearings at the Varick Street Immigration Court, which continues to undermine the highly successful in-person NYIFUP intake model and harm the fairness of clients’ hearings; a cascade of anti-immigrant caselaw and policy changes issued by former United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions that are still binding; enormous political and administrative pressures on immigration judges to rush case completions and prioritize speed over due process; and a failure of communication from the courts in working with NYIFUP to facilitate pro bono representation.

NY Daily News: Public defenders call on city to invest more money in legal representation for immigrants facing deportation

The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defenders and Bronx Defenders will ask during a budget hearing for $16.6 million for the next fiscal year -- an increase of $6.6 million. The money will provide attorneys for immigrants facing deportation at the Varick St. courthouse in Lower Manhattan. (iStock/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defenders and Bronx Defenders will ask during a budget hearing for $16.6 million for the next fiscal year -- an increase of $6.6 million. The money will provide attorneys for immigrants facing deportation at the Varick St. courthouse in Lower Manhattan. (iStock/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

By Stephen Rex Brown
March 19, 2019

A coalition of public defenders alarmed by government efforts to expedite deportation cases will ask the City Council Wednesday to invest more money providing legal representation to immigrants in custody.

The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defenders and Bronx Defenders will ask during a budget hearing for $16.6 million for the next fiscal year — an increase of $6.6 million. The money will provide attorneys for immigrants facing deportation at the Varick St. courthouse in lower Manhattan. The money is urgently needed, the defense attorneys say, because they have noticed signs as recently as Monday that the immigration courts are making major changes to address a case backlog that is the worst in the nation. Through February 2019, there were 110,262 immigration cases pending in the city, according to a tally by Syracuse University.

“We’re really looking at potentially mass deportations happening under our watch and we’re a sanctuary city,” said Jennifer Williams, an immigration attorney for Legal Aid.

In recent months the courts have expanded the use of video conferencing technology that allows ICE to not physically bring immigrants facing deportation before a judge. In December, attorneys in the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project complained that critical hearings scheduled for months away had been expedited without any notice, giving them little time to prepare arguments on why their clients shouldn’t be deported. On Monday, defense attorneys got a first look at seven new courtrooms dedicated to immigration cases.

"People will be deported away from their families, often to persecution or death, without knowing they may have had a strong defense,” the Immigrant Family Unity Project said in a statement, arguing why the additional funding is needed.

Unlike in criminal court, immigrants in deportation proceedings do not have the right to an attorney if they cannot afford one.

The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which began providing attorneys for immigrants in custody in 2013, has been imitated across the country. The Vera Institute of Justice evaluated Family Unity Project in 2017 and found that 48% of immigrants succeeded in their cases, while unrepresented immigrants in the same court were successful only 4% of the time.

The Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which operates immigration courts, did not respond to a request for comment.

Pix 11: Brooklyn man free after 7 years behind bars for robberies he didn’t commit

By Jay Dow
March 19, 2019

A Brooklyn man is free after he spent seven years behind bars for armed robberies he did not commit.

Otis Boone was convicted after he was picked out of a lineup. He does not have an identical twin, but he is tall and African-American, with a youthful face. In other words - no different than thousands of other young, black men walking the streets of New York City.

But tragically, that generic description was enough to get Boone convicted in criminal court for committing two armed robberies in Brooklyn, at the age of 20.

"I know I didn't do these crimes, so I don't have anything to worry about," Boone said.

But he was wrong. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison all based on the robbery victims picking out Boone in separate suspect lineups.

Boone wasn't even anywhere in the area when the robberies were committed.

"For somebody to just come out of nowhere and just say 'yea, he did this to me' and then to be arrested for this, that was a challenge in the beginning," Boone said.

His misidentification was the result of what is known as the “cross-race effect," in which people of one race have a hard time identifying people of another race. It led to a long, seven-year stretch behind bars.

"When they locked me up, I did cry," Boone said.

But he kept fighting his case. His lawyers at Legal Aid Society were eventually able to overturn his conviction.

Defense attorney Bess Stiffelman and her team were able to prove Boone was physically a mile away from the crime scene when he used his city issued Electronic Benefits photo ID Card.

“There was really no investigation," Stiffelman said.

Boone, now 27, has been out for the last year while appealing his case. He won his freedom for good at a second trial earlier this month.

"That transition, coming back into society, it's actually hard," he said. "It's harder for me now because I'm less trusting."

Boone is now engaged and expecting his first child.

NYPD spokeswoman Sgt. Jessica McRorie tells PIX11, “Nothing about the investigation and prosecution of Otis Boone supports the conclusion that he was falsely arrested or maliciously prosecuted.”

Queens Daily Eagle: Public Defenders and Prosecutors Agree on Pay Parity, Funding Increases

District Attorneys From Around the City, Including Queens Acting DA John Ryan (Right) Discuss Funding Increases and Pay Parity for Prosecutors. Image via Live Video Feed of City Council Hearing

District Attorneys From Around the City, Including Queens Acting DA John Ryan (Right) Discuss Funding Increases and Pay Parity for Prosecutors. Image via Live Video Feed of City Council Hearing

By David Brand
March 19, 2019

The Legal Aid Society is asking the city to allocate $12 million to $15 million to public advocate organizations in the 2020 budget in order to establish pay parity with attorneys from the city’s Corporation Counsel.

Salaries for public defenders, as well as prosecutors, trail other government attorneys. It’s an issue that the City Council’s Committee on the Justice System reviewed at an October 2018 hearing, where public defenders and prosecutors sat at the same table to discuss the need for higher pay.

“Every day, our dedicated staff works tirelessly in courts and in communities to defend New York’s most vulnerable,” Legal Aid said in a statement ahead of the October hearing. “However, for too long, City Hall and the NYS Office of Court Administration (OCA) have underappreciated and undervalued this zealous commitment by refusing to acknowledge the growing disparity in compensation between our staff, Corporation Counsel, and OCA court attorneys.”

Legal Aid said Tuesday that it reviewed employment data from its own criminal defense practice and found that, among attorneys hired between 2007 and 2017, the rate of retention decreases as attorneys gain more experience. A large percentage of attorneys leave the office between their fifth and tenth years, Legal Aid reported. Nearly half of attorneys hired in 2007 had left the office by their tenth year, Legal Aid said.

“Each and every day, our staff works relentlessly in courts and in communities on behalf of New York’s most vulnerable. But for far too long, they have been working at a financial disadvantage compared to the City lawyers who appear opposite them,” said Legal Aid CEO Janet Sabel in a statement Tuesday. “This inequality in pay deprives our staff of a sustainable living wage, impeding their ability to pursue careers as defenders.”

Councilmember Rory Lancman, a candidate for Queens DA, chairs the Committee on the Justice System and presented specific budget information for prosecutors and public defenders in his written testimony.

The FY 2020 Preliminary Budget for Indigent Defense includes $299.2 million, an $8.1 million increase from the 2019 budget. The city would cover $260 million of that total, while the state would pick up the remaining $39 million.

“Pay parity for public defenders with lawyers at other city agencies is of paramount importance to this committee, as highlighted by our October 2018 hearing on the subject, and we look forward to their testimony on this issue,” Lancman said in written testimony. “It is long past time for the city to pay the lawyers we fund to represent New Yorkers every day — especially those providing constitutionally or statutorily required work — at the same rate as the lawyers we hire for ourselves.”

The FY2020 proposed budget figures for prosecutors is similar to last year’s adopted budget. New York City DAs would receive $415.6 million in funding for 3,778 positions.

A review of New York City public defender salaries posted on the website demonstrates the relatively low pay. The average base pay for a Legal Aid staff attorney is $68,223 per year, based on a review of 52 salaries.

Brooklyn Defender Services pays staff attorneys an average base salary of $65,619 based on four listed salaries. The Bronx Defenders pay an average base salary of $67,000 per year based on seven listed salaries.

An AccessLex/Gallup survey from January 2018 found that 60 percent of law school graduates borrowed more than $100,000 in loans for law school between 2010 and 2017. The survey was reported by Quartz.

Tina Luongo, the attorney in charge of Legal Aid’s Criminal Practice, highlighted specific salary disparities between Corporation Counsel attorneys and public defenders during the October hearing.

New York City Corporation Counsel attorneys with 10 years of experience earn an annual salary of roughly $108,000 while public defenders with 10 years of experience earn about $90,000, she said.

NYC Law Department spokesperson Nick Paolucci said “fair compensation” for public defenders “is a critical factor in recruiting and retaining effective lawyers.”

“Our system of justice works best when all parties in litigation are represented by competent counsel,” Paolucci said.

Pay disparities also affect prosecutors, who earn less than than their corporation counsel counterparts as well.

“To ensure justice and fairness without fear or favor, prosecutors and indigent defense agencies must be able to recruit and retain the brightest legal minds,” said Manhattan District Attorney Chief Assistant District Attorney Karen Friedman-Agnifilo in written testimony presented to the committee in October. “A low starting salary combined with the twin burdens of tremendous law school debt and the cost of living in New York City make it extremely challenging for our offices to recruit recent law school graduates in the competitive legal labor market In a statement, the Legal Aid Society said public defender salaries pale in comparison to other attorneys and discourage many attorneys from pursuing or maintaining their careers in public service.