A non-profit based in Lower Manhattan is suing the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the City to halt the practice of arresting people accused of low-level offenses, such as administrative violations and infractions, misdemeanors, and some class-E felonies.
The Legal Aid Society, headquartered at 199 Water Street, filed suit on April 14 in New York State Supreme Court, on behalf of multiple plaintiffs who were arrested and detained on minor offenses during the demonstrations that convulsed Lower Manhattan last summer, following the death of George Floyd in police custody in May.
The Legal Aid Society argues that, in every one of these instances, the arrests were illegal, under a State law enacted in January 2020. That law limits police to issuing desk appearance tickets (the equivalent of a summons) in such cases, rather than making arrests. This measure was designed to minimize the amount of time that New Yorkers accused of crimes may be detained, and reduce overcrowding in the detention system—a priority that took on a new urgency several months later, as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped New York.
All of the plaintiffs represented by Legal Aid in this action were arrested during the George Floyd demonstrations. In the cases of all these plaintiffs, formal charges were either never filed with a court, or were immediately dismissed.
“For merely observing a protest, the NYPD illegally arrested and detained me for eight hours. I was confined to a packed cell with fifty other people, unable to socially distance, and many people were without masks,” says lead plaintiff Charles Douglas. “No one should experience what I went through—the law is designed to prevent these sorts of needless arrests, and the NYPD must be held to account for their egregious flouting of the law.”
Marlen Bodden, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Special Litigation Unit, argues that, “the law is clear, but the NYPD still overwhelmingly refuses to issue appearance tickets for low-level offenses, instead, processing New Yorkers—the majority from Black and Brown neighborhoods—through the legal system. The NYPD is not above the law, and we are asking the court to order the NYPD to follow it or face the consequences.”
This suit is related to (but separate from) another legal action, filed by the Legal Aid Society last June, on behalf of 108 detainees who were arrested in Manhattan during the first five days of George Floyd protests, and held for more than one day. That proceeding was based on New York’s procedural requirement that criminal defendants be brought in front of a judge and arraigned within 24 hours of arrest. This guarantee was, in turn, established by the Legal Aid Society (which seeks to provide equal access to justice to people living below the poverty line) in a 1991 case, Roundtree v. Brown, which challenged (and made illegal) the protracted delays that arrestees in that era often endured before seeing a judge.
In that case, the Court of Appeals (New York State’s highest panel) found that, “arrestees held in custody for more than 24 hours without arraignment are entitled to release unless an acceptable explanation for the delay is given.” In the June, 2020 suit, the Legal Aid Society established that 100-plus arrested persons were held for more than 24 hours, without the legally required explanation, and thus succeeded in obtaining the immediate release of all the detainees.