By Melissa Toback Levin, Lewis Steel Racial Justice Fellow, New York Law School
The Racial Justice Project (“RJP”) is a legal advocacy organization housed in New York Law School dedicated to protecting the constitutional and civil rights of people who have been denied such rights on the basis of race, and to increasing public awareness of racism and racial injustice in, among other areas, the areas of education, employment, political participation, economic inequality, and criminal justice. The RJP’s work includes impact litigation, appellate advocacy, legislative advocacy, training, and public education. Professor Penelope Andrews and Professor Alvin Bragg co-direct the RJP; they are aided by post-graduate fellows and students in the Project’s work.
Recently, the RJP has been keenly focused on efforts to promote police transparency and accountability as well as efforts to end the criminalization of poverty. The following provides an overview of two RJP matters:
Carr v. de Blasio
In late August 2019, the RJP filed a petition on behalf of Eric Garner’s mother, sister, and police accountability advocates against the Mayor of New York City, the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”) Police Commissioner, and other New York City officials. The petition was brought under Section 1109 of the New York City Charter, a “sunlight” provision which allows a judge to preside over a summary inquiry at which City employees and officers can be made to testify about violations or neglect of duties.
The respondents moved to dismiss the petition. On September 24, 2020, Justice Joan A. Madden granted the majority of the petition for a summary inquiry. The Court granted the petition for a summary inquiry with respect to alleged violations and neglect of duty in connection with: (1) the stop, arrest, and use of force against Mr. Garner; (2) the filing of false official documents concerning Mr. Garner's arrest; (3) the leaking of Mr. Garner's alleged arrest history and medical condition in the autopsy report; and (4) the alleged lack of medical care provided to Mr. Garner by police officers.
The respondents filed a notice of appeal and are seeking to invoke an automatic stay. If the inquiry proceeds, Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Police Commissioner O'Neill, among others with knowledge or information concerning the four areas of inquiry, will be required to testify and a transcript of their testimony will become a public record.
In addition to the lawsuit, the RJP submitted a Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”) request to the NYPD and the Civilian Complaint Review Board (“CCRB”) relating to Mr. Garner’s arrest and death.
The lawsuit and FOIL request were part of a broader campaign to repeal New York State Civil Rights Law Section 50-a, which provided protections for police officer personnel records and had been interpreted in an overly broad manner. (The City had pointed to Section 50-a as a basis for the lack of key disclosures concerning Mr. Garner’s death.) In October 2019, New York Law School Professor Alvin Bragg testified at a hearing before the New York State Standing Committee on Codes on the repeal of Section 50-a on behalf of the RJP. On June 12, 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an act to repeal Section 50-a into law. As a result, the public has access to police disciplinary records as they are considered “presumptively open for public inspection and copying” under New York’s Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”). One week after the law’s repeal, the City pledged to release all disciplinary records – this is now the subject of litigation brought by law enforcement unions, including the Police Benevolent Association.
Driving While Black and Latinx: Stops, Fines, Fees, and Unjust Debts
In February 2020, the RJP produced a report entitled “Driving While Black and Latinx: Stops, Fines, Fees, and Unjust Debts.” The report examines the disparate impact that a law which authorizes driver’s license suspensions for non-payments of traffic debt and nonappearances in traffic court has on communities of color. It notes that between January 2016 and April 2018 New York issued nearly 1.7 million driver’s license suspensions for traffic debt and highlights how the practice unduly targets and harms communities of color, forcing people to choose between, on one hand, stopping driving and not being able to get to work or, on the other hand, risking criminal charges by driving on a suspended license.
The report was utilized in a campaign to help secure the passage of the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act, which passed both chambers and now awaits Governor Cuomo’s signature.