Legal Aid Continues To Advocate For Housing Authority Tenants And Their Guests Who Are Wrongfully Accused of Trespass

The hurtful consequences for people living in or visiting tenants in the New York City Housing Authority Housing Projects who are wrongfully charged with trespassing were described by Jim Dwyer in his column today in The New York Times. In the column, Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, said: "We have cases in all five boroughs of New Yorkers who are either tenants or guests of tenants in the New York City Housing Authority who are arrested for allegedly trespassing when they weren’t. These cases divert attention of the courts, the prosecutors, the defense lawyers and the police from more serious matters.”

Seymour James, the Attorney-in-Charge of the Society's Criminal Practice, and Al Rivera, a Supervising Attorney in the Society's Bronx Criminal Defense office, were also featured in additional media reports in the New York Daily News and on WNBC News regarding Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson's new policy of requiring interviews with arresting police officers before proceeding with trespass cases. The media coverage is printed below.

The New York Times
September 27, 2012
At Home, and Accused of Trespassing
By Jim Dwyer

Few things can be more galling than the takeover of public housing projects by hoodlums who use law-abiding people as camouflage for criminal activity.

Not too far behind would be the scoffing dismissal by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on Thursday of the reality that legitimate people in projects are, at times, wrongly charged with trespassing.

Time and again, people accused of trespassing in the projects have provided pretty good evidence that they were there as guests or even residents, and many of them maintain that the authorities didn’t bother to check out their stories.

Such mistaken charges were being brought so often in the Bronx that prosecutors said that they wouldn’t pursue trespassing cases unless they interviewed the arresting officers.

On Thursday, the mayor said that the Bronx district attorney, Robert Johnson, was wasting officers’ time by asking them about the trespassing arrests. “If you want to bring crime back to New York, this is probably as good a way to start doing it,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

In that sense, the whole court system could be seen as a waste of police resources. As it happens, Manhattan prosecutors usually require interviews of police officers before proceeding in trespassing cases, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney said.

Mr. Johnson, an independently elected official who does not require Mr. Bloomberg’s permission to make decisions on enforcing the law, ignored the mayor’s gibe about bringing crime back. “The officers are answering our questions,” Mr. Johnson said, “and we’re making the judgments that we were hired to make.”

Steven Banks, the chief lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, which represents people accused of crimes, said: “We have cases in all five boroughs of New Yorkers who are either tenants or guests of tenants in the New York City Housing Authority who are arrested for allegedly trespassing when they weren’t. These cases divert attention of the courts, the prosecutors, the defense lawyers and the police from more serious matters.”

The mayor also said there really was no proof that mistaken trespassing arrests were a problem, an assertion that would not survive an avalanche of evidence to the contrary.

One authority on the subject is Aaron Brown, 24, arrested for trespassing last year at the Clinton Houses in Harlem.

Mr. Brown, an information technology manager for a federal agency, grew up in the Clinton project, and when he moved out after college, his mother and a brother remained behind. On a Friday evening last year, he called on them.

In the lobby of the building, he said Thursday, he was surrounded by police officers who asked what he was doing.

“They wanted to know, ‘Do you live here,’ and I said, ‘No, but I lived here for 10 years and my mother is on her way back from the store,’ ” Mr. Brown said. He gave them her apartment number.

“One of them asked, ‘Do you have any drugs on you or concealed weapons?’ ” Mr. Brown said. “I said: ‘No, why would you ask that? I just told you what I am doing here.’ ”

He was then cuffed and frisked, and the arrival of his mother in the lobby, home from the store and vouching for his status, did not change the course of events. Four hours later, he was released from custody with a summons to return to court, which he did three times before the charges were dropped. “I had to take personal leave to go to court, which I don’t have a lot of,” he said.

MR. BROWN is among many plaintiffs suing the city over trespassing arrests in a raft of cases. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which has brought one of the suits, says a study found that more than 60 percent of the charges are brought against African-Americans.

On Thursday, seven members of a PCP gang who had set up noxious shop in the Milbank-Frawley Houses in East Harlem pleaded guilty to a long list of charges. They were hunted down by the police after people in the projects, and a community center, complained of their operation.

Policing the projects is hard, essential, dangerous work. One could argue that arresting law-abiding people for trespassing there is necessary, if regrettable collateral damage. One might speculate that it is a byproduct of requirements that police officers show certain levels of activity every month, the toxic quantification of everything. But it would be purely delusional to argue that those arrests don’t happen and don’t hurt.

New York Daily News
September 26, 2012
‘Stop-and-Frisk’ Bronx public housing trespassers will no longer be prosecuted without cop interview, says DA Policy also applies to privately owned Bronx apartment buildings in the NYPD’s Operation Clean Hall’s program.
By Robert Gearty

The Bronx district attorney's office won’t prosecute alleged trespassers in public housing unless the arresting officer submits to an interview.

The Bronx district attorney’s office won’t prosecute alleged trespassers unless the arresting officer presents himself for an interview — a stance that no other city prosecutor has adopted.

The new policy in public housing and privately owned buildings came to light Wednesday as the city is preparing to defend itself in two lawsuits that accuse police of making unjustified trespass arrests as part of its controversial stop-and-frisk policy.

Residents at the Mott Haven Houses said they’re tired of being arrested for hanging out in the courtyard outside their buildings.

“You know how many times they tell us to move from a table when we’re here playing cards or dominoes?” asked Kim Gregory, 51. “I hope it makes a difference.

“It shouldn’t be like this.”

Another resident, Shavell Notice, 20, said it’s humiliating to be confronted and harassed for no reason.

“They treat you like trash,’” she said. “You can’t even speak because once they’re mad at you, you go to jail.”

The DA’s bureau chief for arraignments, Jeannette Rucker, told the NYPD that her office would no longer rubber-stamp arrests that come from stops unless the arresting officer justifies it to prosecutors.

Steve Reed, a spokesman for Bronx DA Robert Johnson, said, “In each and every case, our objective is to seek the truth.”

“When we don’t have the ability to question the officer as to the specifics, we don’t always get the complete picture of what occurred,” he added.

Prosecutors in the other four boroughs are not adopting the Bronx’s new policy. But Queens prosecutors have always interviewed officers who make trespass arrests of suspects in private buildings, said spokesman Kevin Ryan.

The Manhattan DA’s office had no comment. Staten Island’s said it has no plans to adopt the Bronx’s policy. And a spokesman for Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes said prosecutors’ concerns were addressed through training.

The NYPD has long maintained that it does not use racial profiling and that its aggressive policing is aimed at nothing more than improving safety for residents.

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said Rucker cited only one bad arrest — but the prosecutor in the case later said there was no issue with that collar.

“Nonetheless, Commissioner (Raymond) Kelly directed (the Internal Affairs Bureau) to investigate,” Browne said. “So far, no misconduct has been found.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, lauded the Bronx DA’s new policy.

“That the District Attorney has had to put this new procedure in place shows that unlawful trespass arrests continue to be a serious problem,’’ said NYCLU’s associate legal director, Christopher Dunn. “Unfortunately, this is a city-wide problem that requires major changes by the NYPD.”

Seymour James, a top lawyer at the Legal Aid Society, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of Housing Authority residents, said the new policy bolsters the suit’s contention.

“It demonstrates that the claims we make in the lawsuit — that police are making illegal arrests — are corroborated,” he said.

News 4 New York at 6
WNBC (NBC) New York
September 26th, 2012 6-6:30 PM

Davis Ushery: While there has been plenty of criticism and plenty of legal challenges to the NYPD’s Stop & Frisk policy, the city’s prosecutors, for the most part, have not weighed in on the law enforcement approach until now. In the Bronx, the DA says his office will be declining to prosecute certain arrests. To explain let’s go to News 4’s Gus Rosendale; he’s live in the Concourse section of the Bronx. Gus, what’s going on?

Gus Rosendale, Reporter: Well, David, the concern here is that too many innocent people are being arrested. Now, the NYPD defends the program, but there have been changes.

The Bronx DA’s new approach to Stop & Frisk is welcome news to Bismark Safer, who says he’s been stopped three times near his apartment, and missed school going to court to deal with the summons.

Bismark Safer: I feel bad because it’s messing up my school; you know, I missed school for that. You know, I’ve got to go into it, stay there the whole day.

Gus Rosendale: The Bronx DA will no longer prosecute people accused of trespassing in public housing and private buildings that are part of the NYPD’s Operation Clean Halls program—unless the arresting officer agrees to an interview with prosecutors. Paperwork will no longer be considered good enough to go ahead with charges in these Stop & Frisk cases. District Attorney Robert Johnson’s office released a statement which read, in part: “In each and every case, our objective is to seek the truth. When we don’t have the ability to question the officer as to the specifics, we don’t always get the complete picture of what occurred.”

Alfredo Rivera, The Legal Aid Society: The cops are just filling out little forms and checking off little boxes, and it’s too easy to do that behind the scenes. But now, they’re being confronted.

Gus Rosendale: The change in the Bronx was revealed in a letter from the DA’s office, filed in federal court, in connection with a lawsuit that argues the Stop & Frisk program is unconstitutional. Critics argue minorities are unfairly targeted. In response, the NYPD says it has changed Stop & Frisk training to deal with concerns that legal rights might be violated.

Laquesta James, Bronx Resident: We need some type of help around here in the Bronx because they’re harassing the children and the people that actually live around here, like ourselves.