A federal judge hearing the civil rights suit of a man who served 15 years in prison for a now-vacated murder conviction signaled on Nov. 16 that he would let parts of the case proceed as attorneys grappled with questions of prosecutorial immunity and municipal liability.
Eastern District Judge Frederic Block (See Profile) heard arguments on a motion by New York City to dismiss a $150 million lawsuit filed by Jabbar Collins against the city, prosecutors and investigators from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.
Collins was convicted in 1995 of murdering a Brooklyn landlord but maintained his innocence. His conviction was vacated in a 2010 federal habeas corpus proceeding during which the district attorney’s office acknowledged it had failed to inform the defense of a prosecution witness’ temporary recantation.
The claims in Collins v. City of New York, 11-civ-766, include municipal liability, malicious prosecution and deliberate, reckless misrepresentation in connection to denials from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office of Freedom of Information Law requests (NYLJ, Feb. 17, 2011).
Block indicated the municipal liability claims might proceed and said he was “perfectly comfortable” for the time being keeping in the case individual prosecutors who allegedly falsely denied the existence of documents sought by Collins in a freedom of information request.
Early in the approximately hour-long proceedings, attorneys for the city indicated they would be seeking summary judgment, but Block shot back that “some of the claims will survive summary judgment,” at one point calling Collins’ suit “a serious case” and later saying “some of the allegations seem to be very credible.”
Although admitting it was “not my province,” Block urged the sides to engage in settlement talks, saying, “This is the type of case that’s probably good to get settled.”
Block said he already had prepared a draft of his ruling on the dismissal motion and said he expected to hand down a final version in the coming weeks.
In the underlying case, the “principal individual defendant,” according to Collins’ 106-page complaint, is Michael Vecchione, lead prosecutor in the case against Collins and the current chief of the Brooklyn district attorney’s rackets bureau. Among the allegations are that Vecchione made false and misleading statements—like denying the existence of the recantation—during a post-conviction challenge by Collins.
During arguments, Block said the allegations against Vecchione “cry out” for accountability. But, he continued, “I just don’t see how I can get there given the status of the law of absolute immunity,” later acknowledging that prosecutorial immunity was a “challenging area of law” that is “evolving as we speak.”
Nevertheless, he gave Collins’ attorney, Joel Rudin of Manhattan, an opportunity to try persuading him. Rudin said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and other circuits are “careful” that prosecutors seeking immunity must be doing so for their role as advocates.
Vecchione’s own advocacy role ended with the 1995 conviction, Rudin argued. And when other Brooklyn prosecutors interviewed Vecchione in connection with Collins’ 2006 post-conviction challenge under Criminal Procedure Law §440, he was doing so “as a witness,” said Rudin.
Questions as to Vecchione’s role in the post-conviction proceedings created an “issue of fact” that could not be resolved in a pre-discovery dismissal motion, said Rudin.
But Assistant Corporation Counsel Arthur Larkin maintained prosecutors were shielded from liability. The Second Circuit “comes down heavily on the side of immunity,” he said.
Another part of Collins’ suit seeks to hold the city liable for Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes “maintaining a policy, custom and/or practice of deliberate indifference to violations by his employees of the constitutional rights of individuals who were investigated and criminally prosecuted in Kings County.”
The suit blasts Hynes for his support of Vecchione. Following the habeas proceedings before Eastern District Judge Dora Irizarry in 2010, Hynes told the media there would be no investigation of Vecchione or any other prosecutor who handled the case, and called Vecchione a “very, very principled lawyer” (NYLJ, June 9, 2010).
Block said he was “disturbed by allegations that Hynes praised Vecchione,” and later added that he was “puzzled” why Hynes had not taken disciplinary action against Vecchione. Hynes, said Block, did not take the case “seriously.”
“I don’t agree,” said Larkin.
In an interview outside the courtroom, Rudin said he was “very appreciative” that Block sought to schedule a trial.
“It’s clear all the truth will come out now,” Rudin said.
Asked about the possibility of a settlement, Rudin said his client faces “competing concerns” about having “all the truth come out” and moving on with his life. If the city is “serious about settling, we could have a discussion with them,” said Rudin.
In addition to Larkin, the city was represented by Assistant Corporation Counsel Elizabeth Krasnow.
A spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney declined to comment.
@|Andrew Keshner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.