The Manhattan District Attorney’s delegation of New York City Police Department attorneys prosecuting two protesters charged with low-level offenses presents potential conflicts of interest, a judge ruled this week. A different judge said last year that the delegation was lawful.
On Sept. 19, 2016, Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Guy Mitchell found it was within the DA’s legal authority to hand over the prosecution of Arminta Jeffryes and Cristina Winsor, who were cited while participating in a Black Lives Matter demonstrations in March 2016.
In a ruling published Thursday, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Lucy Billings, who presides over the protesters’ civil suit against the NYPD and Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. challenging the delegation, ruled the protesters brought forward viable claims and denied the Manhattan DA’s and the NYPD’s motions to dismiss.
The protesters allege that, in exchange for adjournments in contemplation of dismissal, the lawyers working the case want them to admit police had probable cause to give them summonses, thus shielding the department from civil liability if they decide to bring civil rights claims against the NYPD or the officers who cited them.
This alleged potential for a conflict of interest, Billings said, violates the protesters’ due process rights, undermines the reliability of the adversarial process and raises a claim that NYPD lawyers are not handling the case in an even-handed manner.
If a DA were to offer a dismissal of charges in exchange for letting a police department off the hook for civil liability, Billings said, that DA would violate his or her obligation to exercise independent jurisdiction.
Billings said Vance’s office and the NYPD have failed to show how the “result is any different when the district attorney delegates prosecutorial functions.”
Under state law, DAs may delegate prosecution of petty crimes to other agencies so long as the DA is made aware of all criminal prosecutions within its jurisdiction.
It is rare for a DA’s Office to send assistants to prosecute cases in summons court, though there have been exceptions, such as in 2011 when hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters were arrested at demonstration near the Brooklyn Bridge.
The criminal cases against Jeffryes and Winsor have survived motions to dismiss and are set to go to trial on Sept. 26 before Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Stephen Antignani.
Jeffryes was summoned for jaywalking during a protest in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Winsor was cited at E. 12th St. and Fourth Ave. for stepping off a usable sidewalk and walking on the roadway after police told her not to do so.
Martin Stolar, who represents the protesters, said Billings’ ruling opens new legal avenues for his clients.
“It vindicates our position that the delegation is illegal and unethical,” Stolar said.
The defendants are also represented by Gideon Oliver, Elena Cohen and Jonathan Wallace.
Assistant District Attorney Patricia Bailey appears in the civil case for Vance’s office, and Assistant Corporation Counsel Adam Moss of the city’s Law Department appears for the NYPD. Vance’s office declined to comment on Billings’ ruling.