It’s no longer a secret that New York State has one of the most conservative laws in the criminal justice system. Ask many New York City residents and you will find that in most cases you will hear the same story. You will hear about someone arrested and doing (or did) time for a crime they never committed.
How is this possible? Unfortunately, NYS has a law in the books that allows the District Attorneys to withhold evidence, yes YOU READ RIGHT, withhold evidence until trial.
The problem with this little detail is that the majority of poor people arrested for anything as simple as minor petty theft, too many desk appearance tickets (jumping over a subway turnstile, smoking weed in public, etc), or to more serious crimes, though innocent will most probably be doing some time. Since District Attorneys are not required to present any evidence until trial, being innocent does not mean anything to the system because possible evidence that proves the person is innocent will not be presented until time for trial. Ridiculous, but true.
I learned this first hand from experience when my young son was arrested over five years ago on a bogus charge of “possession of narcotics with intent to sell.” That was so ridiculous that his mother and I knew even without talking to our son that the charge was bogus. What happened was that my son had left the house to buy lunch. On his way down to the store he met a neighbor that was also on a lunch break and decided to walk with him, as he too wanted to buy lunch. The neighbor had apparently just come down from a building that was on the police watch for drug transaction. By the time my son and his friend got to the corner two police cars swirled in corralling both of them. The police told them to empty their pockets. My son knowing the law (he had recently returned home after graduating from Wesleyan University) told the police officer that he did not have to empty his pockets because he did nothing wrong, nor had anything illegal in his possession. However his friend, not knowing the law and afraid of the police emptied his pockets and showed a small $5 bag of Marijuana.
The police used that as an excuse and the next thing we know is that our son spent a night in jail and when arraigned next day had a charge of “possession of narcotics with intent to sell.” Of course my son pleaded innocent to the anger of the judge who was willing to reduce the charge to a “desk appearance ticket” that he explained would disappear if he could stay clean and out of trouble for a year. We were insulted by both the charge and the judge’s remarks and insisted that our son was innocent. The judge got angry, slammed his gavel and said, “OK, then go to trial.” Luckily, my son had never had a criminal record, summons, or any altercation with police. In addition, being a Wesleyan graduate and having both his parents there he was released without bail.
To make a long story short, it took two years of court appearances that were cancelled because the police and or the District Attorney were “not ready” for trial. My son lost work days as a producer, his mother and I lost work days to accompany him, the police officers, district attorneys and judge lost many hours of work to finally come to the conclusion that my son was innocent because the police had “NO EVIDENCE,” something that we knew from day one.
The inconvenience, time, money, embarrassment and hardship that my family had to deal with were unfair for something that should have never happened. Not to mention the cost in taxpayer’s money that the courts, police department and court officers spent on two years of floating paperwork on something that should have never been.
That is why I became involved and joined several other Bronx activists to form an organization Discovery For Justice to try and change this ridiculous law. We need to change the present law to allow District Attorney’s to present evidence before a trail. Doing so will prevent a lot of poor folks pleading innocent and winding up in Rikers Island where they might have to wait an average of two years for a trial.
Like myself, the general public knows very little about this unfair law. Recently some might have heard about, Kalief Browder a Bronx high school student who was imprisoned for three years, two of them in solitary confinement on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime. He was accused at 16 of stealing a backpack, and his family was unable to afford his bail, set at $3000. He committed suicide two years later, in 2015 when he was released and declared innocent.
It’s time to change this unfair, ridiculous law. Join us on these important dates. Let our elected officials and governor Cuomo know that this law must be changed;
April 20th, 2017: Second Annual Symposium on Criminal Discovery Reform. Monroe College in the Bronx. For more information visit: Discovery
May 16th, 2017: Discovery For Justice LOBBY DAY . Visit the following link for additional information: LobbyDay