When police stop someone with a bench warrant, they are required to take that person to court to see a judge. But a new federal lawsuit alleges NYPD officers have been transporting people to Rikers Island illegally, where they must wait for days in difficult jail conditions before their paperwork is cleared up. Attorney M.K. Kaishian is one of those suing. She joined WNYC Morning Edition host Michael Hill to talk about the suit. The story was first reported on the news site Hell Gate.
Michael Hill: Good morning and welcome to Morning Edition.
M.K. Kaishian: Good morning. Thank you so much for having me.
You're most welcome. Would you walk us through this NYPD policy of skipping courts and taking people they find with outstanding warrants directly to Rikers? Why should the arrested person first have to appear before a judge?
Sure. So when a bench warrant is issued for a person's arrest, that means that they are already part of either an active case or a case that was closed, but somehow not resolved, either due to error or due to some issue that arose after the conclusion of the case.
What police are supposed to do when they stop somebody is run their name and if there is a bench warrant that appears that’s associated with that person's name, they're supposed to, under the criminal procedures laws in New York, take that person directly to court without what's called unnecessary delay. That means just take them directly before the judge of a court that issued that bench warrant so that any outstanding matters can be resolved.
Now, this is important because a judge, the court, court staff are in the best position to determine a few things. First, whether that bench warrant is actually valid. Several people in the suit that we were bringing had warrants said had actually been resolved and there was an error that made them show up as still active. But also that person then is able to either resolve their case on the spot in front of that judge or have a future court date set for their appearance to resolve the case, which means there's no uncertainty as to when they're supposed to come back to court. And what we see happening instead is that police are bringing people directly to Rikers Island and other city jails into DOC [Department of Correction] custody, effectively kidnapping them and placing them in jail without a future court date where they languish indefinitely until someone is able to raise the alarm about where they are and petition the court for release.
M.K., you used the word kidnapping in your filing there. How does it rise to the level of kidnapping?
Kidnapping in New York is when someone restricts the movements of another person unlawfully. It's an abduction. And that is really what is happening here. We are seeing the NYPD and the DOC through their failure to do anything about the people in their custody who don't have these future court dates really breaking the law in order to hold people indefinitely without any sort of due process, without alerting a lawyer or their loved ones as to where they are and without following the law. And it's important to note that the conditions at Rikers Island and in other city jails, as we well know, really do rise to the level of an acute humanitarian crisis.
So these people are brought there unlawfully and then are experiencing those same completely inhumane conditions that other detainees there at Rikers are experiencing as well.
Tell us about one or two of your clients, plaintiffs who have been subjected to this.
Sure. So the first named client in this case is Paul Phillips. Mr. Phillips was stopped in upstate New York and Westchester County on a warrant that had been issued in 1989. So a more than 30-year-old warrant showed up as associated with Mr. Phillips's name. Now this was clearly an error. The police really should have understood that from the get-go. Mr. Phillips had appeared in court subsequently to that. His history would have clearly demonstrated that a 1989 warrant would have been resolved by the court by the time he was stopped most recently on this same case. However, nevertheless, he was brought directly to Rikers Island where he languished for days. He has medical conditions that he alerted the police to, and DOC too that were not treated. He was allowed to suffer terrible physical and mental anguish until he was released when a judge issued a cut slip for him. And Mr. Phillips importantly was never, ever brought before a judge. He just had an advocate on the outside who was able to figure out where he was and secure his release. But really before that happened he endured hell. And the same thing is true for the next named plaintiff, Khaori Wright. And Mr. Wright actually entered Rikers Island with a pre-existing injury that resulted in his jaw being wired shut. But as we know, the food on Rikers Island is inedible even in the best circumstances. And Mr. Wright was unable to eat with his jaw wired shut and DOC was not able to feed him. And so he was in for about 17 days and lost roughly 20 pounds while he was incarcerated. So the people that this is happening to are enduring just nightmarish and hellish conditions.
M.K., give us an idea of how many have been sent to Rikers without going before a judge.
The problem is, Michael, that we really don't know the answer to that question. Part of the problem here is that people are being disappeared into city jails without a trace. There's no record that this is happening because they're not being brought before a judge. They're not given a future court date. They don't have a lawyer, an advocate, standing next to them advocating for their best interests and knowing where they are and knowing when they're going to be seen again. Instead, they're being brought directly to these jails and placed inside until someone figures out where they are. So it is completely possible that there are people inside right now who this has happened to, and we need to know whether that's the case.
M.K., quickly here. What's your goal with this lawsuit?
Our goal is for the NYPD and DOC to be specifically forbidden from ever doing this again. This is completely unacceptable practice.
Now, the criminal procedure statute does allow in certain circumstances for a person to be brought to a jail for one business day until a court is open again. However, that exception just isn't applicable in New York City where courts do operate 365 days a year, including overnight.
M.K., we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us. The NYPD told WNYC it does not comment on pending litigation. M.K., thank you once again.
Thank you so much for having me.