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Daily News: Assembly members demand Manhattan DA reverse policy letting NYPD prosecute activists’ summons cases

By Shayna Jacobs, 3/6/18

Seven lawmakers are pushing for the Manhattan district attorney to withdraw from a controversial policy in which the NYPD was given authority to prosecute activists in summons cases, the Daily News has learned.

Assemblyman Dan Quart (D-Manhattan) and colleagues are urging DA Cy Vance Jr. to rescind his delegation of violations to the NYPD’s Legal Bureau — a policy that allows department lawyers to play prosecutor in summons court.

The collective, in a sharply worded letter to be delivered Tuesday, is asking Vance to “rescind” the permission he gave to the department in a February 2016 agreement.

It is the subject of a lawsuit following the 2016 protest arrests of two Black Lives Matter activists.

The police department sought the access to the low-level court proceedings — that are not even usually handled by a prosecutor — as a way to try to minimize potential future exposure in lawsuits, The News previously reported.

Vance has “made himself and his office into an appendage for insulating the NYPD from civil liability,” Quart charged Monday.

The letter is endorsed by assembly members Inez Dickens, Daniel O’Donnell, Rebecca Seawright, Robert Rodriguez and Richard Gottfried; Sen. Liz Krueger and City Councilmember Carlina Rivera.

The policy “presents undeniable conflicts of interest that simply can’t be avoided,” the missive says.

“An NYPD lawyer is incentivized not simply to prosecute criminal action, but to protect the Department,” it continues.

It also accuses Vance of punting his responsibility in “an untenable abdication of duty.”

“The citizens of Manhattan elected you to represent them in their courtrooms,” it continues.

“By delegating your authority to the NYPD…, you’ve ignored the wishes of your constituents and instead you’ve collapsed the separated powers of the justice system, allowing one institution to serve as both police and prosecutor.”

The officials believe the move was not even legal.

Quart, a criminal defense lawyer, became interested in the issue when he came upon BLM activist Arminta Jeffryes’ trial for walking against the light during a March 2016 protest on the Lower East Side in Midtown Community Court last month.

Gideon Orion Oliver, who represents Winsor and is one of the attorneys handling the lawsuit, lauded the official’s efforts.

Critics of the policy say it unfairly targets citizens practicing their First Amendment rights. The argument is that a minor offense taken up by the NYPD is not getting the regular summons court treatment.

“Other electeds should join in this call,” he said. ‘It is past time for DA Vance to rescind this ill-advised and problematic delegation.”

Vance’s office previously defended the policy, noting that assistant district attorneys did not staff summons court prior to the new practice.

“With rare exceptions, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office does not prosecute summons cases, because those cases typically involve low-level violations, and the office determined not to expend its resources on those cases,” a spokeswoman said in 2016.

“It is appropriate for NYPD attorneys to prosecute cases that they believe are worthy of their attention, and the (agreement) allows them to do so.”