Two Black Lives Matter activists busted during a protest this spring are suing the NYPD, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, and a criminal court judge for a bizarre arrangement where lawyers for the police department are prosecuting the protesters' minor violations, in an effort to avoid being sued for false arrest.
Aminta Jeffryes and Cristina Winsor were arrested—as opposed to just being ticketed, which would be the normal way to go—during a March demonstration, Jeffyes for crossing Houston Street against the light, and Winsor for walking in the roadway on East 12th Street. After hours of detention, police wrote them summonses. The violations are so minor that they don't rise to the level of a crime—even drinking a beer in public is a more serious offense—which means they are dealt with in summons court.
The Manhattan District Attorney's Office doesn't think summonses of this kind are important enough to devote resources to, so they leave the individual police officers who wrote the tickets to appear in court and attest to what they saw. The exception, according to the suit filed Thursday in Manhattan Supreme Court, is when protesters are involved. Dating back to the 2004 Republican National Convention, prosecutors have very occasionally showed up to prosecute summonses. When Jeffryes and Winsor showed up to court in May, they were greeted by the surprise sight of suits in the courtroom.
But the lawyers on the other side were not prosecutors—they were lawyers from the NYPD Legal Bureau, who explained that they had a memorandum of understanding from the DA's Office allowing them to prosecute the cases.
The activists' lawyers formally objected, and in October, Judge Guy Mitchell decided that the NYPD and DA's Office could proceed. Now, the lawsuit seeks to again bar the NYPD from assuming the role of police and prosecutor, citing NYPD policy prohibiting officers from bargaining with defense attorneys, appeals court rulings, state and city statutes against the practice, and a conflict of interest between the NYPD and the role of prosecutor.
NYPD Legal Bureau attorneys are trying to force the protesters to admit guilt in exchange for conditional dismissals of their charges, which could head off potential false arrest and selective prosecution lawsuits down the line, and which is essentially unheard of.
The activists' lawyers argue that prosecutors are supposed to act in the interest of justice and the people, which is fundamentally at odds with the NYPD protecting its officers from facing accountability in civil court. To show that the latter is what the police department is trying to do, the suit points to Legal Bureau Deputy Commissioner Larry Byrne, who told the Daily News that the arrangement was to head off lawsuits, saying, "We’re trying to put some teeth into issuing these summonses."
Speaking of teeth, "Allowing the Legal Bureau to prosecute First Amendment cases is indeed like allowing the fox to guard the chickens," lawyers for the protesters wrote in one filing.
The Law Department and Manhattan DA's Office declined to comment on the lawsuit. The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
Arguing that the jaywalking ticket is a clear case of selective prosecution, lawyer Martin Stolar told the Village Voice, "The person who signed Arminta's summons is a captain. I look forward to getting him on the witness stand, asking how often he, as a captain, issues summons for jaywalking, and how it came to be that she was held for five hours and then issued a summons for jaywalking. Things like that don't usually happen. One might think she was singled out, because she's an organizer."
The city spent $228.5 million settling and paying out judgments for police misconduct lawsuits in fiscal year 2016.