Judge won’t dismiss suit challenging police-as-prosecutors

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NEW YORK – A New York judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by two women trying to stop police lawyers from serving as prosecutors in their low-level cases and others like them, suggesting the arrangement was filled with ethical problems.

The women were arrested in 2016 protesting police brutality at a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Arminta Jeffryes was charged with jaywalking; Cristina Winsor, disorderly conduct.

Their cases were sent to a summons court that usually has no prosecutors at all and handles tens of thousands of cases a year. But New York Police Department lawyers stepped in to handle the charges, a practice that's emerged in the last two years.

While many similar cases get dismissed without any admission of guilt, attorneys for the women say the NYPD lawyers wouldn't agree to a dismissal unless they said their arrests were legitimate. The women refused and are headed for trial next week. They separately sued to stop the arrangement between the Manhattan district attorney's office and the NYPD.

Judge Lucy Billings ruled Wednesday their lawsuit is on hold until their criminal cases are decided. But, she said the allegations raised in the lawsuit suggest the police are given too much power.

The district attorney allows the NYPD attorneys "complete authority to determine whether, whom, and how to prosecute all charges brought in the summons part, without any supervision by the district attorney, the only public officer expected to exercise those prosecutorial powers," she wrote.

The DA's office said it doesn't want to expend resources on the small-time summons cases, though it did take on hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters' cases in 2011 in the name of ensuring consistency.

But the NYPD says it's tired of getting sued by people who got cases dismissed, and dismissals happen too easily when there's no prosecutor. Department lawyers have prosecuted at least 15 disorderly conduct, unpermitted vending and unspecified summons cases since December 2015.

The department and DA's office later set out written guidelines, including a defendant's recidivism, for the police to choose cases to prosecute as the DA's delegate. A criminal court judge OK'd them last fall, saying they posed "no impermissible conflict of interest."

Gideon Oliver, a lawyer for Winsor, said the civil court judge's decision shows the arrangement does create potential conflict. "That should be enough to stop the delegation," he said.

Martin Stolar, the attorney for Jeffryes, said Billings' ruling was "a death knell for this program."

The city's law department and the district attorney's office had no comment.

The women's cases are slated for Sept. 26.

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