Legal Aid Seeks to Unseal Garner Grand Jury Record

This story by Andrew Keshner appeared in the New York Law Journal on December 11, 2014.

The Legal Aid Society has filed a motion to unseal the entire record of the proceedings of a grand jury that voted against criminal charges for a New York City police officer who applied a fatal chokehold during the arrest of Eric Garner.

The motion filed on Monday before Acting Staten Island Supreme Court Justice Stephen Rooney (See Profile) is under seal. However, a source familiar with the matter confirmed the filing.

When the grand jury decided last week not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for Garner's death, Staten Island prosecutors asked for court permission to release parts of the record, but not the transcripts or exhibits. It is unknown what information the district attorney wanted to disclose because its motion was filed under seal.

In any event, Rooney on Tuesday allowed disclosure of information such as the length of the proceedings, number of witness and how many witnesses were civilians versus police officers and medical personnel. He also said grand jurors were "instructed on relevant principles of law, including Penal Law §35.30 regarding a police officer's use of physical force in making an arrest."

In Matter of Richmond County, 80294/14, Rooney laid out the legal hurdles for applicants trying to surmount the secrecy endowed on grand jury proceedings by Criminal Procedure Law §190.25(4).

While grand jury secrecy was "not absolute," a claim of public interest did not guarantee disclosure, he said.

When weighing secrecy and disclosure, Rooney said, "it must be noted at the outset that the plain language of the statute in question unequivocally establishes that the need for secrecy is presumed, and that the burden is on the party seeking disclosure to rebut this presumption."