WNYC: NYS Budget: Criminal Justice Reforms

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Rikers Island, 2011 AP file photo ( Bebeto Matthews / AP Photo )

Janet Sabel, CEO and attorney-in-chief of The Legal Aid Society, and Insha Rahman, program director at Vera Institute of Justice, discuss the criminal justice reforms in the New York State budget, including changes to discovery rules, speedy trial requirements and cash bail.



City Limits - In Budgeting for Lawyers’ Salaries, NYC Can Support Equal Justice

By Janet Sabel
April 2, 2019

Our justice system is replete with disparities. Assistant District Attorneys, who prosecute cases in Supreme and Criminal Courts, Corporation Counsel attorneys, who represent the city in delinquency cases in Family Court and who defend the city in lawsuits brought against NYPD, NYCHA, ACS and others, enjoy a courtroom setting that has long been slanted in their favor. And even though Albany recently passed critical reforms to make our system more fair and just, there is still more that we must accomplish to secure the wholesale change needed.

But the disparities are not merely in the laws, nor do they end at the court house doors.

Government attorneys have another advantage over public defenders. Their salaries are dramatically higher than those paid to lawyers and staff at public defender organizations working on behalf of low-income clients. This problem is not new, but as these disparities grow, defender organizations are bleeding experienced lawyers and are struggling to attract new talent.

In New York City, nonprofit organization such as ours deliver critical legal services in criminal, civil, and juvenile courts and communities. Collectively our organizations employ over 4,000 people who represent more than 300,000 New Yorkers annually. In addition to representing clients in court, defender staff work day in and day out in the communities they serve and engage in broad-based impact litigation crucial to redressing pressing societal problems.

But this good work is increasingly in jeopardy as defenders continue to grapple with New York City’s exorbitant cost of living, as well as with their own crushing student loan debt.

Recently, we analyzed the retention rates of all the attorneys in our Criminal Defense Practice who were hired between 2007 and 2017. Sadly, but not surprisingly, as the years of service and experience of staff increased, the rate of retention decreased, with the largest percentages of staff leaving between their fifth and tenth year of service. By the tenth year, essentially half of that year’s hiring class – nearly 48 percent – had departed for other employers. Attrition in our Civil and Juvenile Rights Practices are, unfortunately, following this same path.

New York City’s Corporation Counsel’s office pays attorneys with ten years’ experience an estimated annual salary between $95,000 and $108,000. This salary range is significantly higher than what we are able to pay our attorneys with the same experience level. It’s also enough to keep pace with the cost of living and to meet school loan obligations. This reflects the city’s understandable commitment to retaining its own experienced advocates to skillfully represent its interests in court. The defender organizations want to do the same for our lawyers so that they, too, can provide the best services to the clients we represent.

The New York State Office of Court Administration (OCA) pays $98,824 to court attorneys with only three years’ experience. That’s because OCA also understands the need to keep pace with the cost of living and to keep experienced lawyers, who assist judges in discharging their responsibilities, working in the court system. Our lawyers, who advocate daily before those very courts, should not see their compensation lag so far behind.

In exit interviews, we hear the same story again and again. They want to stay; they love the work they do for their clients. Yet they cannot afford to continue to work for us. They are left with no choice but to leave.

As city budget negotiations continue, we have a proposal for Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson: pay the public defenders of this city the same salaries the City pays its own Corporation Counsel lawyers. OCA must also recognize the need for increased funding as well.

The members of our staff deserve no less. And, more importantly, our clients, the people of New York City, are entitled to the services of devoted public defenders who have the skill and experience to provide them with the vigorous representation that the Constitution requires and which, in a just society, they absolutely deserve.

Janet Sabel is the CEO and Attorney-In-Chief of The Legal Aid Society.

Gothamist: Federal Judge Rules Controversial Gravity Knife Law Is Too Vague To Enforce


By Jake Offenhartz
March 29, 2019

A federal judge in New York has deemed a state ban on gravity knives to be unconstitutional — but stopped short of striking down the controversial statute entirely.

Citing the "high risk of arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement," Judge Paul Crotty ruled on Thursday that police officers and prosecutors had too much discretion in enforcing the 1950s-era law. Specifically, the judge mentioned the unreliability of the so-called "wrist-flick test" — an imprecise standard used in the past by both the NYPD and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance to see whether the folding knives require force to open.

"Criminal culpability here is tied to a vague definition and functional test that could have outcomes depending on who is performing it and when," wrote Crotty. "People should be able to tell whether their conduct is lawful or unlawful."

Criminal justice advocates have long argued that the ban unfairly targets chefs and other service employees who use folding knives for work. In one high-profile case, police arrested chef Nate Appleman, who was at the time in charge of the kitchen at Keith McNally's now-defunct Bowery pizza restaurant Pulino's.

Analyses from both the Legal Aid Society and the Village Voice found that the vast majority of people charged with gravity knife possession in New York are black and Hispanic.

The state legislature has passed legislation to decriminalize certain gravity knives in recent years, but Governor Andrew Cuomo has twice vetoed the measure.

As advocates celebrated the judge's decision, they were also quick to note that the opinion does not necessarily invalidate the law. For now, the decision only applies to the plaintiff in the case: Joseph Cracco, a sous chef who was arrested in Grand Central Terminal in 2013 for carrying a folding knife that he used for work. Though the law will likely be used to argue against gravity knife charges in future cases, it is merely a "step toward [the] ultimate goal" of repeal, according to public defenders.

With that aim in mind, the Appeal reports that State Assemblymember Dan Quart introduced a bill last month to strike the term gravity knife from the penal code altogether. The Manhattan assemblyman expects the bill to move easily through the Democratic-controlled legislature, ending up on Cuomo's desk by the end of the year.

The Governor's Office did not respond to Gothamist's inquiries about whether he would sign the legislation, or his reaction to the federal judge's ruling. A spokesperson for the Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance — one of the law's most vocal defenders — said in a statement that the office was "reviewing the decision."

ABC News: Karina Vetrano killing may have been carried out by 'jacked up white guys,' not suspect Chanel Lewis, according to anonymous letter

By Christina Carrega
Mar 31, 2019

Defense attorneys for a New York City man — facing the rest of his life behind bars for allegedly strangling a woman to death as she was jogging nearby her house — are expected to file a motion on Monday to request to investigate allegations from an anonymous letter that suggest details about other possible suspects were withheld.

On Thursday evening, after the attorneys in the murder trial of suspect Chanel Lewis both rested their cases, defense lawyers Julia Burke and Robert Moeller returned to their office and found a plain envelope with no return address, said a spokesman from the Legal Aid Society.

The envelope contained an anonymous letter from an alleged law enforcement source alerting defense attorneys to alleged exculpatory evidence that the author said had been withheld from the defense.

Defense attorneys said that the three-paged typed letter pointed attorneys to several meetings among investigators during the first two weeks of the probe during which -- according to unknown author of the letter -- NYPD Deputy Chief Michael Kemper "stated on several occasions at these meetings" they are "looking for two jacked up white guys who are from Howard Beach."

Defendant Chanel Lewis, right, is seated at the defense table at Supreme Court in the Queens Borough of New York, during the sixth day of his re-trial for the murder of Karina Vetrano, March 26, 2019.

The letter suggests that investigators were initially looking for one or more white assailants. Lewis, the defendant, is African-American.

"The NYPD has painstakingly investigated the murder of Karina Vetrano, and as the Queens District Attorney’s prosecution demonstrates, the evidence clearly shows that Chanel Lewis is responsible for her death," said Detective Sophia Mason, a spokeswoman with the NYPD. "Multiple legal hearings and two criminal trials, over more than two years, have already exhaustively examined the issues in this anonymous, 11th-hour letter, a missive riddled with falsehoods and inaccuracies."

"As we have throughout the course of this trial, we will respond in Court accordingly," said a spokeswoman for the Queens County District Attorney's Office.

“We received troubling and reliable information indicating that the police withheld critical Brady information about other potential suspects, which was never turned over to the defense,” Tina Luongo, a Legal Aid attorney representing Lewis, wrote in a statement released on Friday.

Luongo was making reference to what's known as the 'Brady rule' that requires prosecutors to turn over any and all potentially exculpatory evidence about the defendant in a criminal case -- based on a 1963 case known as Brady vs. Maryland.

“Moreover, we learned that the police approached our Mr. Lewis to obtain a DNA swab as part of a race-biased dragnet, which involved the swabbing of over 360 African-American men in Howard Beach and other neighboring sections of Brooklyn and Queens."

Phillip Vetrano, father of Karina Vetrano, sits outside a courtroom in New York, March 20, 2019.

Karina Vetrano was killed while jogging in Spring Creek Park — adjacent to Howard Beach, New York — on Aug. 2, 2016. After the 30-year-old did not return home from her solo evening run — one she normally did with her father Phil Vetrano.

According to trial testimony, Phil Vetrano led the search and ultimately discovered his daughter's partially-clothed body laying in unkempt weeds in the waterfront park.

Six months into the investigation, the case had turned cold when one of the case detectives, Lt. John Russo remembered calling the police on a black man, who was roaming in the Howard Beach neighborhood three months prior to Karina Vetrano's death, according to trial testimony.

The man was later identified as Chanel Lewis.

Lewis, then 20, agreed to allow police to swab him for DNA inside his East New York home as his mother stood nearby.

The last photo of Karina Vetrano at her Howard Beach home moments before leaving for a jog, Aug. 2, 2016, with her mother in the background.

According to the three-paged typed letter sent to the defense team, after Lewis' sample was taken, one of the detectives "reported back to Lt. John Russo the following, 'He's not the perp. He's too puny and dimwitted.'"

Nonetheless, Lewis was arrested, allegedly confessed and was charged in February 2017 with first-degree murder, second-degree murder and aggravated sexual abuse.

Lewis' first trial in November 2018 deadlocked a jury after 13 hours and prompted the case judge to declare a mistrial.

"In light of this case-altering information, we plan to submit motions on Monday seeking a hearing as to the prosecution's failure to disclose this exculpatory evidence and a new hearing challenging the [New York Police] Department’s unconstitutional racial profiling throughout their investigation,” Luongo wrote.

NY Daily News: Lawyers in Vetrano murder trial to challenge prosecutors after anonymous letter says info was withheld from defense

Defendant Chanel Lewis, right, seated at the defense table at Supreme Court in the Queens Borough of New York, on Tuesday, March 26, 2019, during the sixth day of his re-trial for the murder of Karina Vetrano, who was killed while running along a trail in a local park in August 2016. Lewis' previous trial ended in a hung jury. (Charles Eckert/AP)

Defendant Chanel Lewis, right, seated at the defense table at Supreme Court in the Queens Borough of New York, on Tuesday, March 26, 2019, during the sixth day of his re-trial for the murder of Karina Vetrano, who was killed while running along a trail in a local park in August 2016. Lewis' previous trial ended in a hung jury. (Charles Eckert/AP)

By Graham Rayman
March 29, 2019

Lawyers for the man accused of murdering Queens jogger Karina Vetrano are going to file motions on Monday, based on an anonymous letter, alleging prosecutors failed to disclose information that could increase doubt about the suspect’s guilt, sources said.

The Legal Aid Society received an anonymous letter that claimed cops initially believed two “jacked up white guys from Howard Beach” murdered Vetrano while she was jogging in Spring Creek Park on Aug. 2 2016, and that an NYPD official made that comment in meetings with senior investigators. The letter was also sent anonymously to a Daily News reporter.

The significance of the remark is that it suggests cops initially suspected one or more white men of killing Vetrano, not Chanel Lewis, who is black.

Prosecutors have said Lewis, 22, grabbed Vetrano as she went for an evening run through Spring Creek Park near her Howard Beach home. He raped and strangled the 30-year-old, they said, and left her body in weeds.

Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge at the Legal Aid Society, said defense lawyers had received “troubling and reliable information” indicating police withheld from them critical information about other potential suspects.

“We learned that the police approached Mr. Lewis to obtain a DNA swab as part of a race-biased dragnet, which involved the swabbing of over 360 African-American men in Howard Beach and other neighboring sections of Brooklyn and Queen,” said Luongo.

“In light of this case-altering information, we plan to submit motions on Monday seeking a hearing as to the prosecution’s failure to disclose this exculpatory evidence and a new hearing challenging the Department’s unconstitutional racial profiling throughout their investigation,” Luongo said.

“As we have throughout the course of this trial, we will respond in Court accordingly,” a spokeswoman for the Queens District Attorney said, declining further comment.

The anonymous letter claimed detectives who took DNA material from Lewis after he was detained told a senior officer that Lewis was “too dimwitted and puny” to have committed the crime. The letter claimed that was passed on to another senior officer but not disclosed to the defense.

The letter alleged that the initial stop of Lewis was illegal because there was no specific justification for stopping him and police did not complete a stop and frisk form as required. It’s illegal to “swab” someone for DNA without particularized suspicion of criminal activity. A lawyer familiar with the case said, “The courts have held that you can’t go up and seek consent. You have to have some element of criminality.”

The letter claimed an NYPD officer lobbied for all white males in Howard Beach to be swabbed, and that when DNA recovered from Vetrano’s body appeared to match a black male, the officer verbally ordered all black men arrested in Brooklyn and Queens to be swabbed for DNA, including all black men arrested in Howard Beach.

According to the letter, the NYPD took DNA from more than 360 black men.

A police official told the Daily News that contrary to the letter, males of all ethnicities and backgrounds were swabbed, and that a black male was considered a possible suspect two to three days into the investigation. The official said the legality of stopping Lewis held up in court.

According to the official, police have denied ordering all white men in Howard Beach to be swabbed.

An NYPD spokesman said, “The NYPD has painstakingly investigated the murder of Karina Vetrano, and as the Queens District Attorney’s prosecution demonstrates, the evidence clearly shows that Chanel Lewis is responsible for her death. Multiple legal hearings and two criminal trials, over more than two years, have already exhaustively examined the issues in this anonymous, 11th-hour letter, a missive riddled with falsehoods and inaccuracies.”

Bronx Justice Network: Bronx Justice News


By Kevin Deutsch and Sasha Gonzales
March 29, 2019

Herminio Robles has cost the City of New York a few dozen dollars in MetroCard swipes.

But the criminal justice system has spent tens of thousands of dollars punishing him for it.

The 35-year-old Co-Op City resident has been arrested numerous times for theft of services – the legal charge for fare evasion – and has challenged several misdemeanor convictions in state appellate courts, hoping to clear his record. His most recent legal loss came earlier this month, when the First Department upheld his conviction for attempted criminal possession of a forged instrument stemming from a 2015 farebeating bust.

According to police, Robles was bending MetroCards at the No. 4 subway station at East Fordham Road and Jerome Avenue before he slipped through a turnstile without paying. An NYPD officer witnessed the act and arrested Robles, who was convicted at a June 2017 bench trial in Bronx Supreme Court.

Critics of farebeating arrests say the taxpayer money it took to achieve that result – including pay for officers, prosecutors, judges, court officers, and clerks – represents a needless waste when weighed against the lost $2.75 in subway fare.

“I was probably trying to get home or to a doctor’s appointment. I think I was targeted,” Robles, who is Latinx, told Bronx Justice News of his multiple arrests on the subway. “The police look for people who don’t pay the fare in poorer neighborhoods, they hide to catch them.”

Robles, who records show has also faced low-level drug charges in the past, added: “I don’t understand why they did that to me for something so small. I had to keep coming back to court. I feel like the system was working against me.”

A little more than 5,000 New Yorkers were arrested for farebeating in 2018 – 90 percent of them people of color, according to NYPD data. And while the Bronx District Attorney’s Office encourages the NYPD to issue summonses for theft of services rather than make arrests – unless there is what the office calls a “public safety exception” – police frequently haul Bronx farebeaters to jail anyway, records show.

The policy of the Bronx DA’s Office is to decline to prosecute theft of services “where that charge appears without any other charge,” said Patrice O’ Shaughnessy, Director of Communications for the DA’s Office.

NYPD officers aware of that policy often add additional charges, such as criminal trespass and attempted forgery (a charge commonly brought against suspects who bend empty MetroCards in a way that allows them to bypass turnstile scanners), according to transit activists and public defense organizations.

“Fare evasion is an essential crime of poverty for our clients and other low-income New Yorkers who are trying to access employment, education, or critical services,” said Anthony Posada, Supervising Attorney of the Community Justice Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “Despite efforts by local district attorneys’ offices to scale back fare beat prosecution, the New York City Police Department continues to target Black and Brown people at a disproportionate rate. Until public transit is made free, we will see this disparate enforcement time and time again.”

The city’s fare evasion policies came under renewed scrutiny recently when New York City Transit President Andy Byford said the MTA planned to crack down on train and bus fare beaters, who the authority estimates cost the system more than $225 million in revenue last year.

As part of its effort to close a budget gap projected to reach $1 billion by 2021, Byford has said the MTA is working with the NYPD to create “fare evasion strike teams” to catch farebeaters.

The MTA has publicized data estimating that nearly 600,000 subway and bus riders use the transit system each day without paying. But critics have questioned the methodology used to arrive at that number, and accused the agency of scapegoating minority communities for its longstanding financial problems.

“Blaming Black and Latinx New Yorkers in poverty is cynical and wrong,” city advocacy groups wrote in a joint letter to Byford earlier this year.

The NYPD, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has eased its strict enforcement of farebeating in certain cases. Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill have strongly defended the department’s enforcement policies.

“Fare evasion is not acceptable and we cannot create a situation where people think it is acceptable,” de Blasio said at a press conference with O’Neill last year.

But for straphangers like Robles, who has spent years coming and going from court for low-level charges, enforcement of fare evasion has had a devastating impact.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” he said. “People need the subway.”

New York State Enacts Comprehensive Criminal Discovery Reform




(NEW YORK, NY) - As part of a transformative criminal justice reform package included in the New York State budget, Governor Cuomo signed into law a complete overhaul of New York’s Discovery law, often referred to as the “Blindfold Law.” This follows nearly half a century of "trial by ambush" where people were forced to accept plea deals or go to trial without ever knowing the evidence in their cases and made New York third in the country in wrongful convictions.

The passage of this law was a culmination of the efforts of a broad coalition of impacted people, legal practitioners, advocacy organizations, labor groups, and the tireless work by dedicated lawmakers, including long time champions and bill sponsors Assembly Member Joseph Lentol and Senator Jamaal Bailey as well as Governor Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins.

One crucial provision is the requirement that prosecutors provide the full range of discovery prior to the acceptance of a plea bargain. This will impact a large majority of people facing criminal allegations due to the prevalence of plea bargaining in today's criminal legal system. Guilty pleas result in a wide range of collateral consequences, including loss of employment, educational opportunity, housing and deportation. The new law emphasizes the right of someone to fully understand the charges before making this life-changing decision.

“Discovery for Justice, Bronx-based community members seeking to bring attention to the injustice of the Blindfold Law, is very pleased to have played a part in the formation of the statewide coalition of stakeholders that brought about this unprecedented movement that has forever advanced the cause of justice in our state’s criminal laws. Evidence is the bedrock of our criminal justice system. For too long, New York State blindfolded the accused and forced them to fight for their freedom not knowing what was being used against them. With the passage of the Discovery for Justice Reform Act, New York will become a leader in justice and fairness when it comes to discovery. The State of New York cannot afford to put those who are innocent behind bars. New York State legislators, by passing the Discovery for Justice Reform Act, will help increase trust in our system by requiring open, early and automatic discovery.” – Syed Saad Ahmed, Board Member, Discovery for Justice (D4J).

“The New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers applauds the historic actions by the New York State Assembly, Senate and Governor in the passage of criminal justice reform that will create a more fundamentally fair, equitable and just criminal justice system. New York State is now, and should always remain, a leader on these issues.” – Lori Cohen, President, New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NYSACDL).

“NYSDA applauds the Assembly, the Senate, and the Governor for enacting landmark criminal discovery legislation. The new law will help ensure prompt disclosure of the prosecution’s evidence, so that all those accused of a crime and their counsel may conduct informed investigations, file appropriate motions, evaluate plea offers, and make informed decisions about going to trial. NYSDA looks forward to working with the public defense community to ensure the promises of this legislation become a reality on January 1, 2020.” -- Susan C. Bryant, Acting Director, New York State Defenders Association (NYSDA).

“CDANY commends these significant changes in Discovery and thanks Governor Cuomo, the Senate and the Assembly for making them happen. Accused people in every part of the state will now benefit for a more fair and equitable system.” – David Schopp, Esq., President-Elect, Chief Defenders Association of New York (CDANY). “For decades our clients have been forced to go to trial or plead guilty without knowing the evidence the prosecutor had. However, as of today, this injustice ends. Now, people who are accused will have early access to critical evidence and other information necessary to fully defend themselves in court. This reform would not have occurred without the steadfast dedication of impacted people, advocate allies and the bill sponsors. A special thanks to The Legal Aid Society’s John Schoeffel who spent the last decade raising awareness about our State’s flawed discovery statute and working towards its overhaul to better serve our clients in the interest of fairness and justice,” -- Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice, The Legal Aid Society.

“Brooklyn has had an open file discovery process for 20 years and it has resulted in much fairer resolutions, including drug treatment, mental health treatment and other restorative justice programs when appropriate. We attribute the greater overall fairness of our system to its transparency and applaud the Assembly, the Governor and the Senate for passing these much-needed reforms throughout the state.” -- Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director, Brooklyn Defender Services.

“We are thrilled that the Governor and the Legislature have passed one of the strongest discovery laws in the country. For too long, our clients have been forced to make some of the most consequential decisions in their lives, such as whether to accept a plea bargain or go to trial, without access to even the most basic evidence in their cases. This bill will ensure basic fairness and transparency in our criminal legal system.” – Justine Olderman, Executive Director, The Bronx Defenders.

“Today, because of the unwavering advocacy of directly impacted people and organizations across the state, New York State passed a historic bill to overhaul our discovery laws. Now, New Yorkers who become ensnared in the criminal legal system will not be blindfolded to the evidence against them, unable to prepare a defense or coerced into plea deals without knowing even the basic facts of their case. This is a critical step in reigning in the often unchecked power of prosecutors and protecting New Yorkers from mass criminalization and wrongful convictions. In this victory, we celebrate the power of movements led by impacted people to create seismic change.” - DeAnna Hoskins, President & CEO, JustLeadershipUSA.

“The blindfold has at long last been lifted, enabling a massive renovation of the pretrial system. Too many wrongful convictions in New York had been enabled by a system that operated in the dark. No longer will innocent criminal defendants be forced into the irrational choice of pleading guilty and spending years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. This reform also directly addresses much of the racial injustice that is baked into and impacts New York’s criminal process. Today is a historic day and we are extraordinarily grateful to the Governor and the legislature, including Assemblyman Lentol and Senator Bailey.” -- Rebecca Brown, Director of Policy, Innocence Project.

“We are giving up some stuff, but we got enough to get a bill signed. I’ll take 90% and we will keep fighting for the rest. When I was arrested and sent to Rikers Island, I didn’t see the streets for 18 months, while the District Attorney withheld all the exculpatory evidence. Under this new discovery bill, I believe I would have gotten out after 15 days. What we’ve been asking for is a fair chance in court, for prosecutors to have to actually show that they have some proof of a valid case, and this gets us closer to that. Prosecutors are going to have to do more honest work now to prove a case, instead of just selling people out.” – Darryl Herring, Community Leader, VOCAL-NY.

“New York’s passage of comprehensive discovery reform represents an important step toward dismantling a racist and regressive pretrial system that is responsible for jailing tens of thousands of un-convicted people and damaging the lives of countless Black, Brown and low-income New Yorkers. Transparency about the allegations and evidence against you is foundational to shifting unfettered power out of the hands of prosecutors and better balancing the scales of justice. Repealing the Blindfold Law represents an essential rolling back of the New Jim Crow Laws that created the crisis of mass incarceration.” – Erin George, Criminal Justice Campaigns Director, Citizen Action of New York.

“On behalf of the New York Hotel Trades Council and our more than 35,000 members, I congratulate Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Heastie for agreeing to enact discovery reform in this year’s budget. By fixing our discovery statutes, tens of thousands of individuals, who are mostly low-income and people of color, will no longer have to worry about whether they will have access to critical information about their cases in a timely manner, which will help prevent wrongful convictions. This victory would not have been possible without the tireless work of advocates and our champion members in the Assembly and Senate. HTC is proud to have been a part of the fight for reform and will continue to put our political resources, energy and member power behind being a catalyst for change and force of justice for all New Yorkers.” -- Peter Ward, President, New York Hotel Trades Council.

"For too long, New York’s antiquated criminal discovery laws kept people in the dark about crucial evidence in their cases and prevented them from having a fair chance in court. Today's historic changes make New York's criminal discovery laws the fairest in the country. These reforms will level the playing field by ensuring that defendants can see the evidence against them in time to make informed choices about plea bargains or trial." - Justin Harrison, Legislative Attorney, New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).

“The right of the accused to any evidence that may be used against them is basic to their fundamental constitutional right of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The New York State Discovery For Justice Act will help insure that this right will be protected.” -- Bill Bastuk, It Could Happen To You.

"We want to applaud the commitment, tenacity, and strategic planning of lawmakers, including Assemblyman Lentol and Senator Bailey as well as the Blindfold Coalition -- and the community organizing efforts that finally got this discovery reform done after so many years of struggle!" -- Henry Garrido, Executive Director, District Council 37.


The coalition extends a special thank you to the staff of the Assembly, Senate and Governor’s staff, including Daniel Salvin, Marty Rosenbaum, Jonathan Bailey, Kathleen O’Keefe, Nadia Gareeb, Dorothy Powell, Shontell Smith, Adam Silverman, Marta Nelson, Jason Starr, and Joe Popcun, for the hundreds of hours they dedicated to negotiating the details of this historic legislation.

New York State's New Budget Brings Crucial Reforms

(NEW YORK, NY) – Janet Sabel, CEO and Attorney-In-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, released the following statement responding to Legislature passing the New York State Fiscal Year 2020 budget:

“There is no denying that many of the budget measures passed by the State Legislature mark a significant change towards a fairer justice system for our clients and others across New York.

The criminal discovery and speedy trial reforms will end the gamesmanship and power dynamics that have favored prosecutors for decades, resulting in thousands of coerced pleas and wrongful convictions. These monumental changes, decades in the making, will truly save lives and begin to restore faith in our justice system. As for the reforms to bail, we echo the sentiments of many in the Legislature, including the Speaker, that this bill ultimately does not go far enough. We wholeheartedly hail the decision not to cave to law enforcement by introducing racially biased dangerousness determinations into our statute, and we applaud that, under the new provisions, many people charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies will be returned to their families and communities without having to buy their freedom. However, we are holding Legislators to their promise to end cash bail for all offenses in New York State, and to fully legalize marijuana this year without any more delay.  

For our immigrant clients, Albany’s decision to advance much-needed legislation that would reduce the maximum sentence for Class A misdemeanors from one year to 364 days will have a tremendous beneficial impact on the thousands of New Yorkers born outside of the country. Currently, a 1-year sentence – or even the possibility of one – can trigger serious adverse immigration consequences, including mandatory detention in certain cases. The passing of this measure will strengthen New York’s resolve as a sanctuary state.

The Legal Aid Society thanks Governor Andrew Cuomo, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie for moving the State forward on these core issues that affect so many of our clients.

Lastly, despite the historic reforms on criminal justice issues, we are disappointed that Albany failed to tackle with the same seriousness the myriad of housing issues faced by our clients. Resources to address the widespread capital needs of the New York City Housing Authority are lacking, and Home Stability Support – a program that would protect thousands of tenants from eviction and homelessness – remain unfunded. We will continue to raise these issues for the rest of session, alongside other critical housing matters that Albany must face before adjourning for the year in late June.”

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NY Post: Judge rules New York ‘gravity knife’ ban unconstitutional

By Andrew Denney
March 28, 2019

A federal judge ruled on Thursday that the state law that bans “gravity” knives is unconstitutional because it’s too difficult to enforce.

Federal District Judge Paul Crotty specifically mentioned a so-called “wrist-flick test” used by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s office.

The test, used by cops who attempt to open the knife by flipping it, is arbitrary and shows that the law is too difficult to enforce, the judge said.

“The wrist-flick test is just absurd,” said Martin LaFalce of The Legal Aid Society. “It’s absurd that criminal liability turns on the athletic skill of individual officers.”

Under Vance’s method a police officer who isn’t very good at flicking open a folding knife could give it four or five tries before it locks into place — and it could still be considered a gravity knife, Crotty said.

The ruling pertains to a suit filed by Joseph Cracco, a sous chef who works in Manhattan and who was arrested in 2013 at Grand Central Station for carrying on his belt a folding knife that he uses for work.

Cracco said it took the arresting officer four or five attempts to open the knife with the wrist-flick method. Cracco eventually pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.

A spokesman for the Manhattan DA said the office is reviewing the decision.

Vance has been outspoken in his opposition to changes in the state gravity knife law, saying that it is needed to keep New Yorkers safe from knife attacks on the streets and subways.

Reasons: Federal Judge Rules New York’s Dumb ‘Gravity Knife’ Law Is Unconstitutionally Vague

C.J. Ciaramella
March 28, 2019

A federal judge ruled today that New York's notoriously nonsensical law criminalizing "gravity knives"—which groups have said for years is used by New York City to selectively prosecute people, especially the working class and minorities, for carrying common folding knives—is unconstitutionally vague.

in response to a lawsuit by New York City sous chef Joseph Cracco, who was arrested and fined for carrying a pocket knife, U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty ruled that New York's law banning gravity knives afforded police and prosecutors almost unlimited discretion to arrest and prosecute people for carrying knives commonly sold in stores across the state.

"The court recognizes that the District Attorney must have discretion to prosecute or not to prosecute criminal matters," Crotty wrote in his opinion and order. "The combination here, however, of a statute that does not specify how Cracco can identify a gravity knife and a a practice of prosecuting possession of gravity knives in an unclear and inconsistent manner provides police and prosecutors 'virtually unlimited' or 'unfettered' discretion to enforce the gravity knife statute. Under such circumstances, and with the lens of Cracco's past prosecution and intended future conduct, the gravity knife statute is unconstitutionally vague."

The law was passed in 1958 to criminalize knives that rely on gravity to open and lock into place. It was intended to address knives modeled after World War II paratrooper knives that opened by depressing a button, whereafter the knife blade fell and locked into place by force of gravity. However, New York City police interpreted the statute to mean any folding knife that can be opened by a flick of the wrist.

As Crotty's ruling notes, a gravity knife, unlike many other weapons, is defined not by its design but by its function, as determined by the "wrist flick test."

Martin LaFalce, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, a legal aid group that has released several reports on the gravity knife law, says in an interview with Reason that the Cracco decision "recognizes the basic principle that criminal liability cannot turn on the flick of an officer's wrist, and it's impossible for New Yorkers to comply with the gravity knife statute."

The law is applied almost exclusively in New York City and nowhere else in the state. A 2014 Village Voice investigation found that between 2003 and 2013, the NYPD made 60,000 arrests for alleged gravity knife possession. Eighty-six percent of those arrested were black or Hispanic.

In 2014, a New York City man received a $7,500 settlement from the city for malicious prosecution after he was arrested for carrying a pocket knife that he'd purchased to comply with the state's confounding laws, and which the staff at the store told him was perfectly legal. The Village Voice reported in 2015 that New York City paid out nearly $350,000 in malicious prosecution settlements involving gravity knives over the previous five years.

In Cracco's case, he was returning home after work with his knife clipped to his pants pocket when he was stopped by NYPD officers.

According to the court ruling, Cracco "had owned the knife for several years and used it to open boxes, to open bottles, and when working on cars and his motorcycle. He never attempted to open the knife by attempting the wrist flick test."

Cracco alleges that the officer who arrested him tried three or four times to flick open his pocket knife before finally succeeding.

Under today's court ruling, if a police officer failed to flick open a knife on the first try, the knife would not be illegal.

"Under the old standard, in theory a police officer could attempt to open a folding knife many times, fail every time, and then on the final time, if the officer was able to, it would qualify as illegal," LaFalce says. "To say that someone could go to jail under that standard is absurd."

Yet that absurd standard led to thousands of people a year being arrested and prosecuted in New York City for carrying knives sold in hardware stores throughout the city.

In response to these issues, the New York state legislature twice passed bills in recent years that would have rewritten the gravity knife statute, yet Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed both bills.

The Manhattan District Attorney's office prosecutes the majority of gravity knife cases in the city, including Cracco's. In a statement to Reason, Manhattan District Attorney's office communications director Danny Frost said, "We are reviewing the decision."