Court's 'Temporary' Rule Changes Protect Bad NYPD Cops And Stack Deck Against Plaintiffs
from the where-lady-justice-is-not-only-blindfolded,-but-gagged-as-well dept
The New York Police Department doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to civil rights. As Reason points out, claims against the department leapt 71% over the past decade, with $135.8 million in settlements paid out in 2010 alone. While any number of internal investigations and policy changes may be taking place at the NYPD in an attempt to lower the number of rights violations, the Southern District Court of New York made its own proactive, and actively terrible, efforts.
Concerned about the number of federal civil rights lawsuits filed against New York City police officers, a subcommittee of judges in the Southern District of New York adopted a temporary set of rules two years ago “designed to promote the just, speedy and inexpensive resolution” of many of those lawsuits.
That’s a nice thought, but at least two of those terms deployed are incorrect. The rules enacted by the court have little to do with “justice” or “speed.” But it may have nailed the last term. Stacking the deck against plaintiffs may ultimately be more “inexpensive.”
Among other things, the rules increased the amount of time defendants have to respond to lawsuits in Manhattan and the Bronx that accuse police officers of excessive force, false arrest or malicious prosecution, and provided for what its authors called “limited discovery” while establishing a strict timetable for settlement demands and mediation.
How this subcommittee arrived at the conclusion that extending the mandatory response time to filed suits from 21 days to 80 days serves either “justice” or “speed” is beyond me. In the real world, if you give a student the choice of three weeks or three months to finish writing a paper, chances are it will be completed the night before its due. The only thing that’s changed is the amount of dead time. Same thing here. Giving the NYPD four times the grace period before response means most (if not all) responses will take four times as long to be filed.
And the discovery process is a nightmarish train wreck of travesty traveling down a one-way street (to pile on excessive metaphors) if you’re the plaintiff. These “relaxed” rules heavily favor law enforcement.
While the city is required to produce some evidence quickly, most of it is postponed, and all discovery can be halted if a defendant moves to dismiss the suit.
The NYPD can apply the brakes on discovery at any time, something that will at least speed up responses in some cases. On the other hand, the plaintiff is expected to provide an open book for the defendant to page through.
Plaintiffs are required to authorize the release of medical records and sealed arrest records related to the lawsuit. They must also provide a list of all previous arrests, sealed or unsealed, although the city is only obliged to turn over indexes of previous complaints about officers that are similar to those in the lawsuit or that could raise questions about the officer’s credibility.
The city is allowed to know everything about the plaintiff, whether it’s relevant to the lawsuit or not. Plaintiffs are only allowed to access what the city deems “similar” to the subject matter of the complaint. With these rules in place, an officer’s disciplinary file can be cherry-picked by the defense to present the court with the case of Scumbag Citizen With Priors vs. Officer Good Guy With A Couple Of Judgement Errors On His Record.
And if the officer’s misdeeds are altogether too awful/too similar to be withheld? No problem. The court allows for the automatic adoption of protective orders to designate certain evidence as confidential. Either side can take advantage of these orders and either side can attempt to exempt the case from the automatic protection, but a judge can overrule any of these requests. A brief glance at the stacked deck gives a pretty good indication as to which side will receive more favorable rulings.
Here’s where the court attempts to obtain the “speedy” resolutions it claims the rule changes enable.
If a case is not settled within three months of the city’s initial response, both sides are required to attend a mediation session. And if there has been no resolution at the end of the plan’s process, which lawyers said can take about six months, cases proceed with full discovery.
“Speedy” means settlements, but settlements rule out “inexpensive,” and nothing in the process indicates “justice” is the intent. The plaintiff’s bar has opposed the recommendation to make this temporary rule set permanent, stating that that “months of limited discovery pressures plaintiffs to settle without seeing all relevant evidence.” That’s one way to keep settlement costs lower — keep the plaintiff and the evidence separated, as happened to a woman who brought a suit against the NYPD after being shoved to the ground by police officers and detained for hours before being released without charges.
By February 2012, Ms. Weber (attorney for the woman filing the suit) said would generally emerge during the discovery process.
But because of the limited discovery, lawyers for the city were not obliged to quickly identify the unnamed officers.
“If this case remains within the ambit of the plan, it is quite likely that the statute will expire before plaintiff can identify all possible defendants,” Ms. Weber wrote to a judge, calling that possibility “utterly unfair” and asking that her case be exempted from the plan and handled under standard rules.
The judge, Denise L. Cote, refused the request. A month later, the case settled without the names of the unidentified officers being revealed.
There’s nothing speedy or just about “resolutions” like this. The temporary rule changes that were enacted with the stated intent of streamlining the process and serving justice do nothing of the sort. Now, with the court planning on making these changes permanent, police who violate citizens’ rights will have an ally within the justice system, one that allows them to duck their accountability to the public.