Articles Posted in Civil Rights

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A man who served nearly 16 years in prison for a murder he insists he did not commit has filed a $150 million wrongful conviction lawsuit in Brooklyn, with the district attorney facing intense scrutiny over allegations of misconduct.
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In fact, the district attorney’s office, in a rare move, admitted that the case had been “mishandled,” and conceded that the conviction should be tossed.

The federal judge who vacated the conviction shortly before the defendant was freed back in 2010 called the district attorney’s handling of the case “shameful.”

It’s difficult to put a price on 16 years of ones’ life, but such clear civil rights violations should unquestionably be compensated in some capacity. As one defense attorney noted, prosecutors are supposed to hit hard, but this “went far beyond.”

The case started with the tragic and brutal slaying of a hasidic rabbi landlord, who was gunned down while collecting rent in Brooklyn back in 1994.

A man named Jabbar Collins was arrested, tried and convicted.

But as it would later be revealed, prosecutors failed to turn over key evidence to the defense that would have pointed to exoneration.A key witness had recanted his testimony briefly before the trial, but this fact was never disclosed to the defense.The prosecutors were also accused of coercing witnesses into testifying, in at least one case by threatening physical violence and in another case by knowingly eliciting inaccurate testimony. The office is also accused of taking pains to thwart the defendant’s efforts to challenge the conviction over the years.

When he was first freed, the decision by the district attorney’s office not to re-try him meant that those officials who were accused of misconduct would not be required to testify at a habeas corpus hearing. The judge noted that it was beyond disappointing that the district attorney’s office persisted in its firm stance that it had done nothing wrong.

Now, this civil lawsuit seeks to address the injustice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the district attorney’s office has been less-than-cooperative. In a deposition that lasted more than seven hours, the primary prosecutor in the case answered “I don’t recall” a total of 324 times. A number of those instances, according to news reports, involve questions regarding basic prosecutorial duties and functions of the office.

He claims that his failure to recollect even basic information is a result of passage of time, rather than any attempt to cover up misconduct.

Still, in light of this, the judge in the case agreed to extend the deposition questioning by three hours, though it’s unclear much more will come of it. He did concede during his questioning that a number of sworn affidavits that were reportedly signed by him in fact did not actually bear his signature. This could be a crime, but the prosecutor stopped short of saying that he had authorized anyone else to do so.

Next month, the lead district attorney is slated to undergo a deposition in the case. He is running for a seventh-term re-election this year, so it will be interesting to see how his testimony unfolds.

What happened in this case is extremely troubling. But what is even more disturbing is the pattern that this seems to indicate. Our New York civil rights lawyers find it difficult to believe that the culture that allowed these kinds of activities to go unpunished only affected this one case in Brooklyn. It seems only logical that problems stretched far beyond this case, and we expect to hear of other similar cases in the months and years to come.
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Affirmative action programs at universities are expected to receive more scrutiny, potentially followed by greater volumes of civil rights litigation, after a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the race-conscious admissions policies used by colleges nationwide.
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The 7-1 decision unfortunately avoided giving a clear-cut answer regarding the constitutionality of affirmative action on the national level, instead instructing the lower appellate court to take a closer look at the specific program before it, the one used by the University of Texas.

At issue in the case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, was whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, including the court’s interpretation of it in Grutter v. Bollinger, allowed for the university’s use of race in undergraduate admission’s decisions.

In part, the Fourteenth Amendment holds that no state should deny any person within its jurisdiction equal protection of laws.

The plaintiff in this case was a young Caucasian woman named Abigail Fisher. She applied for undergraduate admissions to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. Although her academic credentials exceeded those of many other minority candidates, she was denied admission on the grounds of affirmative action. Fisher subsequently sued the public university on the basis that it had denied her admission due to her race, which she contended was a violation of civil rights.

The lower court’s used the previous Grutter case as a standard, which held that institutions must give serious, good faith considerations in their decision-making processes with regard to affirmative action. Part of that consideration involves the fact that historically, minorities have been at an extreme disadvantage in these arenas.

The Fifth Circuit District Court held that the university had come to its conclusion by acting in good faith. It did not have express quotas or specified preference points and allowed for all individuals of all races to be considered at all points of the application process. Further, it was acting on its goal of promoting racial diversity in classrooms.

The court denied a re-hearing in the case, and it was ultimately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that universities and colleges have to demonstrate that workable, available race-neutral alternatives don’t suffice in attaining the goal of educational diversity in the classroom.

In Texas, race-neutral methods are used in determining the majority of undergraduate admissions, which includes students who are at the top of their classes. However, to choose the remaining 25 percent of students, the school uses a race-conscious system.

Kennedy wrote that if schools could achieve racial diversity without such methods, then affirmative action programs might not be necessary or could be excessive. But that is a vague standard that inevitably opens the doors for future civil litigation on these matters.
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A man who was wrongfully identified as a suspect in the slaying of a student more than a decade ago has settled a civil rights lawsuit with both Yale University, where he was a former lecturer, and the university and local police departments. hand-cuffs.jpg

This case may open the doors for future litigation from wrongfully accused suspects. The individual involved was never formally charged with the killing, but he claims that simply being named as a suspect was a violation of his civil rights, tarnished his career and reputation and damaged his health.

As his attorney pointed out, his case represents an example of the damage that can be inflicted when authorities blatantly ignore facts and make a rush to judgment.

The crime was a brutal one. The 21-year-old political science major was found lying deceased on the curb near her home, stabbed more than a dozen times in the neck and back. At the time of the slaying, the lecturer had been at his home alone. This, apparently, was his sole connection to the crime.

As the evidence would later reveal, the suspect had little connection to the woman, aside from being her thesis adviser. He wasn’t her boyfriend. He wasn’t a colleague of hers from work. He had no contention or disagreement with her. His DNA was not recovered from the scene. There was no indication whatsoever that he was ever at the scene.

And yet somehow, police came to the conclusion that he was to blame. He lost everything. He was fired from his job. Reporters began to stalk him and he became a prisoner in his own home, as the case garnered worldwide attention. His casual friends and acquaintance colleagues distanced themselves. He found himself seized with fear at the prospect of dating or being around any female.

Articles were written all but proclaiming his guilt.

Still, prosecutors never made the move to formally charge him, more than likely because the evidence against him was scant, at best.

In the years since, it has been a difficult journey to regain his position. He did eventually marry, have two children and forge a career in private and government consulting. He also now teaches graduate courses at a different university.

Still, there were ways in which the old case continued to haunt him. His name was never formally cleared – until this settlement.

Although the agreement didn’t require Yale or the city to admit wrongdoing, the fact that there was a settlement, he said, has given him a modicum of relief in what was an ugly chapter in his life.

We don’t know the exact amount of the settlement, except that the city’s portion was $200,000.

This case is rare in that many times, civil rights lawsuits aren’t filed unless the individual has served actual time incarcerated. In this case, the man was never arrested.

For those who are arrested – and convicted and serve time and are later found to be innocent – clearing a criminal record is an expensive and lengthy process that can take years. Even then, people still crop up in federal databases during background searches, which can be an impediment in finding housing, employment, or in getting things like a hunting license. Some liken it to a branding with a scarlet letter when they should never have been locked up in the first place.

Such struggles are not only unfair, they are an infringement on your right to the pursuit of happiness.
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New York State is being sued by a civil rights advocacy group on behalf of state prisoners who were reportedly banished to long periods of solitary confinement for infractions that were petty and nonviolent. captive.jpg

Our New York City civil rights attorneys understand that some of the alleged violations included having too many cigarettes or not properly cleaning a cell. Guards were given a vast amount of discretion in terms of what infractions would trigger a solitary confinement stint. This led to blatant discrimination, with black prisoners in particular punished with isolation at a disproportionately inflated rate than prisoners of other races.

These stints inevitably caused prisoners to suffer severe psychological and physiological damage, according to the state chapter of the Civil Liberties Union. Solitary confinement is a form of punishment in which a prisoner is relegated to a small cell with little to no human contact or stimulus. They are given no more than one hour a day outside of the cell to exercise.

A 1995 study conducted by Harvard Medical School Psychiatrist Dr. Grassian found that even a few days of solitary confinement will affect brain scan readings to show abnormal patterns reflecting delirium.

Additionally, German researchers have even given a name to the psychiatric syndrome associated with long periods of solitary confinement: Ganser’s Syndrome. It’s characterized by massive amounts of anxiety, hyperresponsiveness to stimuli, vivid hallucinations of all kinds, acute confusion, sudden, violent outbursts, perceptual distortions and paranoid delusions.

As the Civil Liberties Union characterizes it: Torture.

The plaintiff in this case reportedly was given solitary confinement punishment on two different occasions – once for possessing diet pills and another for filing a false lien against D.A.’s office members who had prosecuted him. In all, his isolation totaled two years.

He was serving 16 years in Attica for rape.

Just before filing the suit, the Civil Liberties Union released a report in October called, “Boxed In,” which revealed that in addition to imposing extensive solitary confinement punishments, corrections officers would routinely deprive prisoners of showers, exercise and haircuts for innocuous offenses such as “poor demeanor.”

While the corrections department requires that such orders be reviewed every day, they have yet to cap the maximum amount of time a prisoner can spend in isolation. Plus, despite the requirement that such orders be reviewed, the organization found several incidents in which this was not done, in violation of its own regulations.

Some prisoners in isolation were deprived of edible food as a form of punishment — referred to by staffers as a “restricted diet.” This went on for up to a week before a disciplinary hearing – which determines guilt or innocence – was even held. This diet consists of a brick of vegetable-bread matter, cabbage and water.

The group also found that self-harm and suicide rates for these prisoners, as opposed to those who are serving their time in the general population, are much higher. However, rather than providing these prisoners with psychiatric care, they punish them for incidents of self-harm – with more solitary confinement. One prisoner, who had spent more than two decades in and out of extreme isolation, had a long history of cutting himself. After one incident, his punishment was four months of solitary confinement.
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A same-sex couple in New York City scored a civil rights victory when their landlord agreed to add the wife’s name to the rent-controlled apartment unit inhabited by the other before the legal marriage. summerlove.jpg

Our New York City civil rights attorneys are encouraged that the women were successful in getting the landlord to comply with state and municipal laws, but it’s a shame it took the involvement of lawyers to do it.

Most people would undoubtedly prefer to simply work it out on their own and have the company or institution do the right thing. Unfortunately, there are some disputes for which there is no other solution but legal intervention.

In this case, the two women legally married in Ne York City in January. One of the women had a rent-controlled apartment in her name at the time.

The following statutes address situations such as this:

  • New York City Rent and Eviction Regulations, Section 2202.25;
  • New York City Rent Stabilization Code, Section 2523.5
  • New York City Tenant Protection Regulations, Section 2503.5
  • New York State Rent and Eviction Regulations, Section 2102.8

Rent-controlled units are highly-coveted because they are exceedingly rare and offer reduced rental rates. What these laws say, in part, is that either the tenant or their spouse or family member or “adult lifetime partner” must have been living in that apartment since before July 1, 1971. Rent-controlled apartments become phased out if someone moves out.

Rent-controlled units can be passed from one family member to another, but there are specific guidelines governing who is considered a “family member.” It is defined as any of the following:

Husband, wife, son, daughter, stepson, stepdaughter, father, mother, stepfather, stepmother, brother, sister, grandfather, grandmother, grandson, granddaughter, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, son-in-law or daughter-in-law.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development oversees fair housing under Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which is also known as the Fair Housing Act. This act specifically bars housing discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, color, religion, familial status (including whether a person has young children or pregnant women), gender or disability. It does not specifically protect against housing discrimination for lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender individuals, however, HUD has indicated they may still be covered in a range of varying scenarios. Each case is going to be different, which is why consulting with a skilled civil rights attorney as soon as possible in the process is your best chance for a favorable outcome.

The plaintiff in this case said that she requested that her wife’s name be added to the lease of her rent-controlled unit. She provided a copy of the marriage certificate along with that request. But the building manager reportedly flat-out denied the request, but gave no explanation other than, “I don’t care what kind of things you present to me… It’s not going to happen.”

The couple have been together for 12 years, though married for less than one.

Threatened with legal action, the business manager changed his stance, and the wife was added to the lease. They claim no wrongdoing, but the fact is, now the original tenant’s wife will have secure housing, should something happen to her.
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The woman at the center of a New York discrimination lawsuit later told reporters it wasn’t about the money. wheelchairblue.jpg

Despite the $83,000 settlement the former special needs teacher received, she echoed what many of our clients say: It was about the principle of equality in the workforce.

It’s something our New York employment litigation attorneys take very seriously. We believe that each of these civil rights cases that is won gets us all one step closer to a more diverse – and ultimately better – workforce.

The truth is, not only is discrimination flat-out illegal and morally wrong, but it impedes innovation and progress if everyone within a company or industry is exactly the same.

Disability discrimination, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), happens when an employer treats either an employee or a job candidate unfavorably simply because he or she has a disability. The law requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodations to an employee or prospective job candidate who has a disability, except if doing so would cause some sort of undue hardship. Generally, these laws are going to apply to all government and private employers who have more than 15 employees.

Reasonable accommodations would be such measures as modifying or providing certain devices or equipment, modifying work schedules or positions and making the workplace accessible and usable for those who are disabled.

Those things were reportedly at the center of the suit filed by the former West New York elementary special needs school teacher.

According to local news reports, the teacher fell at work back in 2006. She subsequently underwent knee surgery, but that only appeared to worsen her condition. The doctor informed her that if she was going to return to work, she would need to do so with a motorized scooter.

She did return, but was soon transferred by the district to the middle school, which was apparently better suited to her mobility needs, according to the school. However, the teacher said in her 2009 Division on Civil Rights Complaint that the middle school was not any better suited to accommodate her.

In one instance, the teacher was reprimanded for filing a complaint against a student who reportedly threw a bicycle at her. However, the administrative meeting she was to attend regarding that incident was inaccessible to her scooter. Forced to use a cane to navigate the building, she reportedly slipped and fell.

In another instance, her identification card, which gave her access to the school’s automatic handicap doorway, stopped working. The school, she says, did nothing to rectify the situation once informed of it. Following fire drills, she was left in the parking lot because she couldn’t get back in. She had to call another teacher to open the door.

There were also instances where other non-handicapped employees used the handicap parking spaces, leaving it inaccessible to her.

She was later fired.

All of these incidents collectively amount to a solid case for disability discrimination by the district, which is probably what ultimately led to their settlement agreement.

In addition to the payment the district must make to its former employee, the settlement agreement also mandates that the school will hold anti-discrimination training seminars for all management staff.
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A state lawmaker is trying to figure out a way to adjust New York education law in order to punish students for cheating.

In the wake of the Great Neck SAT cheating scandal that officials have determined was going on for several years throughout Long Island, many officials are looking into the problem.
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As we previously reported on our Great Neck education law blog, one teen, now a student at Emory University in Atlanta, devised a scheme where he would take Scholastic Aptitude Tests for students in exchange for money. The plan went so far as boys dressing as girls in order to get into testing sites where they could take the test for another person. It fell apart, the teen told 60 Minutes recently, when some of the test-takers were caught and confessed.

Newsday is reporting that Sen. Kenneth LaValle, R-Port Jefferson, said that the recent arrests of 20 past and present students is cause for concern. He wants tougher enforcement measures put in place for students taking tests in order to determine their eligibility. Prosecutors have previously said that the victims in the scandal were honest test-taking students who were overshadowed by cheating students.

The senator wants to overhaul a 20-year-old law that gives students accused of misconduct in taking the college entrance exam legal protection. LaValle, head of the state Senate Higher Education Committee, said he wants to make one-of-a-kind changes.

The committee will be meeting to discuss potential changes, including increased test security and increases in criminal penalties for those found guilty of cheating. He believes new legislation that would deal with exam fraud will be drafted this winter.

The senator didn’t provide many specific changes he wants to make, but told Newsday he wants to change a section of the law that provides legal due process for those accused of cheating. Students whose scores are invalidated can have the test fees refunded, retake the test or seek legal arbitration. The senator has said he wants to amend the 1992 law to reduce students’ rights.

The law was put in place to protect students from having the stigma of cheating surround them if they are accused. Some officials argue that colleges and universities should be told if a student was caught or accused of cheating.

Students who are accused of cheating, without relevant proof, shouldn’t have their futures destroyed because of school officials’ allegations. If students are accused of cheating and then re-take the test and pass, why should universities be informed that school officials made a mistake? Students require rights so that their futures can remain bright.

These laws were enacted for a reason. In fact, they went into place after an incident in Los Angeles where 12 students were asked to retake an AP calculus test after suspected cheating. When all 12, who were students of teacher Jamie Escalante, passed, their experience was made into the move “Stand and Deliver.” The New York law was put into place based on that situation, which got much attention.
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The New York Civil Liberties Union recently reported that nearly 90 percent of the arrests of summer school students were of students of color, raising some Long Island civil rights issues.

Some people view civil rights issues as problems of the past dealing with race relations, voting and women’s rights. But today there are plenty more issues that have come up as our country becomes more and more diverse.12754_hand_cuffs.jpg

Immigration, for instance, has become a major topic that brings up arguments daily, including some of which turn violent. States have attempted to create laws that many called racist, while politicians are constantly trying to cash in on the topic. Other issues that deal with civil rights are problems that deal with workplace labor law issues.

This can include discrimination, wage issues, sexual harassment or even physical harassment. Freedom of speech issues, whether at work or in public, can also happen on a daily basis.

NY1 recently reported that the New York Civil Liberties Union studied the numbers of arrests by New York police at the city’s 63 public schools between July and September. The organization determined that 68 percent of African-American students were charged by police in that time frame and 90 percent were classified as students of color.

The organization’s leaders believe this is disturbing trend and a disparity that must be changed. Black students make up only 29 percent of the student population year-round, yet make up nearly 70 percent of the arrests.

Some students said that they don’t feel school safety officers treat all students fairly. Some believe the police treat Hispanic and African-American students more harshly than Asian and Caucasian students. One student told the news station that he had to spend time in jail after being accused of stealing a cell phone and now that will stay on his record permanently.

ACLU officials believe that school officials should take a look at police actions and determine if students are being arrested by officers simply for minor school infractions. Police officials reported that in the last decade there has been a 50 percent drop in major crimes and a 45 percent dip in violent crimes in the schools.

Police and school officials always have a difficult time with this balancing act. On the one hand, they must provide an education that can help students succeed in the future, but they also must provide a safe environment, but one that doesn’t lead to unnecessary charges by bullying police officers.

Officers and teachers alike must not be quick to try to blame a student of color based on some type of deep-seeded bias or based on other past events. Each situation must be handled on a case-by-case basis. Students must be given the benefit of the doubt and not punished for something that could hurt their future without probable cause.
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A New York City police officer was arrested recently and charged with civil rights violations after he allegedly falsely accused a man of resisting arrest and followed that up with a racial slur, The New York Times reports.

This is the second recent example of a NYPD officer being charged with a civil rights violation. In Brooklyn recently, we reported on our blog that a seven-year veteran of the force was charged with pepper spraying and handcuffing a person, then accessing state and federal databases to check the person’s background after an incident outside a bar owned of one of the officer’s relatives.
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Accusations of civil rights violations in New York can not only spark outrage, but can demoralize an entire police department. Big-city departments seem to constantly come under fire for race-related allegations, which sometimes lead to criminal charges.

Both the officers who face these charges and the victims who have been cast aside as second-class citizens require legal representation. A lawyer who has the experience on both sides of the issue should be hired to analyze the situation and best represent the client.

In this case, the 32-year-old white police officer is accused of approaching a black man on Targee Street in Staten Island in plain clothes and unmarked police cruiser in April and frisking him.

When the officer found nothing illegal, the man complained about the treatment and asked for his badge number. The officer arrested him and charged him with resisting arrest, telling the man he didn’t appreciate being treated with disrespect, The New York Times reports.

The officer’s report states the man flailed his arms, kicked his legs and pushed the officer during the arrest. The man spent 36 hours in custody. According to a federal complaint filed against the officer, investigators found text messages and intercepted phone calls on the night of the arrest that show the officer exaggerated facts in the report.

He not only is charged with a misdemeanor civil rights violation, but also extortion and insurance fraud, which could add up to 20 years in prison. The extortion charge is unrelated to this incident, but relates to the officer, who runs a plowing business on the side. Allegedly he lured a man he believed stole his snowplow to a parking lot, where the man was beaten by eight men.

The insurance fraud charges come from him allegedly telling a snow plow worker to bash a truck he owned and then say it was an accident. Investigators allegedly have a recording of the officer’s voice saying “these guys are dead” after learning he was being investigated for the beating.

This will be an interesting case for several reasons. The first is that federal prosecutors rarely file charges in a criminal complaint. They typically take the case to a grand jury, which has to decide whether or not to indict. Perhaps they feel the evidence is insufficient.

Second, the case is based on three completely different situations, which could be difficult for the jury to figure out. Whatever the resolution, let’s hope the victim and the officer receive fair treatment.
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A veteran New York police officer, with seven years of service, was arrested recently and charged with violating the civil rights of a person he allegedly sprayed with pepper spray in Brooklyn, Thomson Reuters reports.

Civil rights charges filed against police officers are far too common. While there are hundreds of charges a person can face, including theft crimes, drug crimes, assault and battery and even murder in New York, an officer’s worst nightmare is facing a criminal charge for an offense allegedly committed while on duty.
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Officers require a strong criminal defense just like the average citizen. But while there are thousands of crimes committed every hour nationwide, that means there are thousands of victims as well.

And while not every defendant charged with a crime is guilty, that still leaves victims needing answers. They require legal representation as well. Victims need a strong voice in order to be heard.

In the instance of the police officer, the 31-year-old now faces up to 17 years in prison if he is convicted in federal court of the charges for which he has been indicted. According to Thomson Reuters, the officer allegedly used pepper spray in 2008 during an argument over parking in front of a bar owned by the cop’s cousin.

While on duty and in uniform, the officer allegedly said “no one (expletive) with my cousin’s place,” before he handcuffed and detained the unnamed victim. A second person was also pepper sprayed.

Prosecutors also allege the officer used the department’s computer systems to access information about the victim. They say he also used the computer system to access federal databases on behalf of his cousin, who is being investigated by the FBI on drug trafficking allegations.

If true, this is obviously a disturbing story because police officers have so much authority. To think officers will, while on duty, violate citizens’ rights in order to protect a family member’s business is tough to swallow.

But another thing that must be taken into consideration here is the possibility that this officer — whose cousin is being investigated by the FBI — may have been unfairly targeted.

In a criminal case, all angles must be considered. When a person’s liberty is on the line, everything must be looked at in order to ensure justice is done.

And the victims deserve justice as well. That means getting compensation in cases where they had to pay for medical care or to reimburse them for the emotional and physical turmoil that so often comes with civil rights violations in New York. This is why the legal system was created. All sides must be represented and what is fair must be the outcome.
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