Safe Surrender Gives Hundreds of New Yorkers A Second Chance; Legal Aid Volunteers Provided Representation and Assistance
Legal Aid volunteers at Safe Surrender included (standing from left) Dawn Ryan, Adam Lubow, Leah Hook, Genesis Fisher, Al Wall, Cornelius Perry and Bharati Narumanchi. Seated from left are Bahar Ansari and Ron Saunders.

Volunteers from Legal Aid's Brooklyn Criminal Office turned out in full force Friday and Saturday to give hundreds of New Yorkers a second chance by getting their summonses and warrants dismissed. Project Safe Surrender is a community program involving the Kings County District Attorneys Office, The Legal Aid Society, and a number of churches in Bedford Stuyvesant.

Lawyers, paralegals, investigators, administrative and support staff and technical support staff from the Brooklyn Criminal Office worked at the Antioch Baptist Church over the weekend where a courtroom was set up. Some 2,500 letters had been sent out to individuals facing outstanding summonses and warrants for minor offenses giving them an opportunity to turn themselves in at the church and have their cases adjudicated. In addition, a number of walk-ins arrived. On Saturday morning, for example, Legal Aid staff had interviewed 126 walk-ins by noon.

"Dismissed and sealed" were words repeated over and over again as men and women walked out of the church with a second chance.

Meanwhile at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church, some seven blocks away, Legal Aid volunteers from the Brooklyn Neighborhood Office, Brooklyn Criminal Office and Central Administration staffed a Know Your Rights table with an assortment of brochures on a broad range of topics including immigration and domestic violence, unemployment insurance, eviction, appearing in court, and encounters with police.

The New York Times
For 2 Days, an Opportunity to Dismiss Minor Offenses
By Ashley Parker
April 22, 2011

They came for spitting, loitering and littering. They came for noise violations and for consuming alcohol in public. Blake Bullard, 18, came on a cold and gray afternoon of his high school spring break for disorderly conduct.

Blake Bullard, right, met with Danielle Feman, from the Legal Aid Society, on Friday as part of Project Safe Surrender.

“It affects me, how people in high school look at me, how I feel about myself,” Mr. Bullard said. “I don’t want it on my record. I want it done. I want it gone.”

So on Friday, Mr. Bullard stood with his mother and his older sister outside Antioch Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, waiting to have the case against him dismissed as part of Project Safe Surrender. Safe Surrender, first begun last year at St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East New York, is a community program intended to help those facing Class C summonses and warrants — which are given for relatively minor offenses — turn themselves in to church and law enforcement officials and have their cases adjudicated in a safe environment.

“We did it on this day because of the Resurrection,” said the Rev. Robert M. Waterman, the pastor of Antioch. “The people who show up here know they have done something. By coming here, just like the thief on the cross, they can be vindicated.”

Pastor Waterman added: “The people in this neighborhood are asked for their ID when they’re walking around, and if they run their name and they’ve missed a court date, they can be arrested.”

As Mr. Bullard tells it, he was approached in front of his house by undercover officers who did not identify themselves. When he kept walking, they chased after him, handcuffed him and brought him to the police station. (“It is untrue,” Lt. John Grimpel, a police spokesman, said in an e-mail, but declined to elaborate.)

To ensure that those who turned themselves in did not get arrested on the spot — perhaps for a more serious felony for which they did not realize they were wanted — lawyers from the Metropolitan Black Bar Association walked the line outside, asking questions intended to weed out those who might not want their names run through a police database.

“If you know you have an armed robbery, don’t come,” Pastor Waterman said. “If you know you have a murder, don’t come.” (In fact, only a dozen cases could not be handled onsite Friday, and for no reason more serious than a misdemeanor warrant.)

Inside, 16 volunteer lawyers and paralegals from the Legal Aid Society went through the cases. The goal, explained Amy Feinstein, the chief assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, “is that everybody who gathered the courage to come here today leaves the court with their case dismissed.”

A group of Brooklyn churches raised $50,000 to put on the two-day event, which runs through Saturday. By mid-afternoon Friday, more than 200 people had been processed.

The court, with its metal folding chairs and table doubling as the bench, had a makeshift feel. Defendants, after talking to representatives from the Legal Aid Society, were given a number and ushered upstairs to the sanctuary where they waited in red-and-brown pews to be called.

After going through a metal detector — “Make sure you have no weapons,” warned a volunteer outside — Mr. Bullard talked to Danielle Feman, another Legal Aid volunteer.

“So we’re going to get you out of here and get this cleared,” said Ms. Feman, after asking Mr. Bullard a few questions about his case. “Dismissed and sealed, so nothing on your record.”

Mr. Bullard scratched the back of his head, smiling for the first time all day.