In response to a nationwide outcry for police reform, the New York Legislature repealed Civil Rights Law § 50-a, a decades-old statute that largely prohibited the disclosure of police disciplinary records. Governor Cuomo has now signed the new legislation, which took effect on June 6, 2020.
Many criminal defense attorneys – and civil rights attorneys – have been rejoicing in the repeal of Civil Rights Law §50-a. In order to understand why that is, our attorneys take a closer look into the repeal of Civil Rights Law §50-a and the history of accessing police records in New York.
What is New York State Civil Rights Law §50-a?
New York State Civil Rights Law § 50-a (prior to its repeal) prohibited the access to – and prevented the disclosure of – police officer personnel records without either:
(1) the express, written consent of the police officer; or
(2) a court order.
Specifically, §50-a permits law enforcement officers to refuse disclosure of “personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion.” This law also applied to the personnel records of firefighters and correction officers.
Why was Civil Rights Law Section 50-a Enacted?
New York State Civil Rights Law §50-a was adopted in 1976 by the New York Legislature in order to prevent criminal defense lawyers and civil rights practitioners from accessing previous records of police misconduct and utilizing those records during cross-examination of police witnesses during criminal prosecutions.
How has §50-a Expanded Over Time?
According to the 2014 annual report by the New York State Committee on Open Government to the Governor and the State Legislature:
“this narrow exemption has been expanded in the courts to allow police departments to withhold from the public virtually any record that contains any information that could conceivably by used to evaluate the performance of a police officer.”
Only New York and Delaware Previously Prohibited Government Employee Records
New York State Civil Rights Law §50-a provisions were only duplicated by one state, and that would be the state of Delaware. In all other states, access to personnel records of government employees was available under certain circumstances.
In order to understand the importance of civil rights law §50-a and it’s the negative impact on (1) a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial or (2) a plaintiffs successful prosecution of a civil rights action involving a police officer, firefighter, or corrections officer, we will provide a context out of which that provision grew.
How Do New York State Rules of Evidence Apply?
Just for purposes of clarity, New York State has a body of evidentiary laws that are applied to criminal trials.
Under New York State Rules of Evidence, a witness may be cross–examined about any immoral, vicious, or criminal act involving moral turpitude, even though the act(s) may not be directly or indirectly probative of the truthfulness or may be an act that suggests the witness’ lack of truthfulness.
This evidentiary rule applies to any witness that takes the stand in a defendant’s criminal trial or even in a plaintiff’s civil rights trial. Richardson on Evidence 6–406.
Despite the longstanding evidentiary rules that allowed a criminal jury or a civil jury to weigh a witness’ prior vicious, immoral, or criminal acts in assessing the witness’ credibility, police officers (who are generally a very important witness at criminal trials) were in the unique position in New York of enjoying the wholesale protection of their prior disciplinary records.
This prohibited the jury from properly assessing the officer’s credibility.
Constitutional Protections and SCOTUS History:
The idea of enacting the 50-a provision did not come out of a knee jerk response. Instead, it was a response to a process that had taken this country towards a stronger protection of defendants’ rights.
I. Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961)
For example, in 1961, the United States Supreme Court, for the first time, issued a decision in Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961), where the court held that the United States Constitution required that any evidence obtained based upon an unconstitutional search would not be admissible.
II. Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963)
Then again in 1963, the United States Supreme Court, for the first time, issued a decision that acknowledged that in order to fulfill a defendant’s Constitutional right to counsel that the state would be obligated to provide indigent defendants with counsel when the court considered the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).
III. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)
Then in 1964, the United States Supreme Court again tackled another constitutional issue related to defendants’ right and police officer’s obligation to advise a criminal suspect of the right to counsel and their right to the client to speak to the police in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).
IV. People v. Sumpter, 347 N.Y.S.2d 670 (1973)
The icing on the cake came in 1978 in a drug trial in New York County where the defense attorneys for a defendant named Mr. Sumpter issued a subpoena for the arresting officers prior disciplinary records and personnel records because the circumstances surrounding the arrest raised serious concerns regarding the officer’s credibility and character.
Legal counsel for the New York City Police Department moved to quash the subpoena in Sumpter and Judge Arnold Fine ruled that the prosecution is required to turn over police disciplinary records in preparation for trial in order for the defendant to have a fair trial by allowing the jury to hear and see all relevant character evidence that New York State rules already stated applied to all witnesses.
New York State’s Freedom of Information Law
Following the footsteps of the United States Supreme Court with the decisions made between 1961 and 1964, the New York State Legislature enacted New York State’s Freedom of Information Law.
The purpose of New York State’s Freedom of Information Law was to remove the cloak of secrecy from government operations and to allow the public to not only participate in the process but also to review the information that decisions were being made based upon.
NYPD Union Reps Push for Blanket Protection
Like today, the 1960s and 1970s in the United States were periods marked by tense police and community relations, massive protests, and a strong distrust by members of the society of police departments and their officials.
In response to Judge Fine’s decision in People v. Sumpter, the New York City Police Department Union Rep petitioned a Republican senator with a request that the senator sponsors a bill that would provide blanket protection for all police records in order to prevent defense attorneys and civil rights attorneys from holding these officers accountable during civil and criminal trials.
In order to gain the support needed to get the bill passed, New York City Police Department union representatives utilized the national unrest and crime rates of the era to instill fear in politicians which made them concede to the union’s demand.
Victims of Wrongful Convictions in the United States
One major difference between the climate during the period when Civil Rights Law §50-a was enacted and today is a national acknowledgment that over 2,500 men and women have been the victims of wrongful convictions in the United States.
When analyzing many of the wrongful convictions in this country between 1989 and today, the evidence shows that 79% of wrongful convictions occurred, in part, based upon official misconduct committed by police and prosecutors and that 77% of the wrongful convictions involved perjury or false accusations, either made by a police officer or prosecutor or made with the knowledge of those government officials.
Defendant’s Right to A Fair Trial
A defendant’s right to a fair trial in a criminal proceeding is the foundation of our criminal justice system. There has never been a judge who has indicated that a police officer’s home address, personal telephone number, or email address is relevant at criminal trial.
Many proponents against the appeal repeal of Section 50-a will argue that without §50–a, it will endanger the safety of police officers.
That is not only unfounded, but it is simply not true.
Protections to Police Officers’ Personal Information
When New York enacted the Freedom of Information Law under New York State Public Officer Law Sections 84 through 90, the provisions were designed to prohibit the release of an officer’s personal information, such as:
- telephone numbers;
- home addresses; and
- information related to an officer’s family members.
Furthermore, there is no decision on the books of New York State’s jurisprudence where a judge has granted a subpoena requesting a police officer’s address or other personal information.
In short, the factual arguments made by proponents of the repeal of 50-a have no support in actual practice, especially in light of the fact that there is only one other state in our nation that prohibits access to police records.
Therefore, the evidence to support their claims would be nonexistent.
Repealing Civil Rights Law Section 50-a
“The 1976 enactment of §50-a may have been necessary to safeguard law enforcement officers from improper personnel record exposure during criminal prosecutions, but that is no longer the case today.”
According to a New York State Assembly Memorandum,
"The evolution of § 50-a has defeated The Freedom of Information Law's (FOIL) goal of accountability and transparency. FOIL already provides all public employees, including those protected under § 50-a, the protections necessary to guard against unwarranted invasions of privacy and from disclosures that could jeopardize their security or safety. Furthermore, courts have the ability to protect against improper cross- examination and determine if police records are admissible in a trial, without the denial of public access to information regarding police activity created by § 50-a. The 1976 enactment of § 50-a may have been necessary to safeguard law enforcement officers from improper personnel record exposure during criminal prosecutions, but that is no longer the case today. The general rules and statutory exceptions of FOIL - for example in instances that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy - are sufficient in protecting police from unfair cross examination by crimi- nal defense lawyers. Moreover, the State Committee on Open Government notes that "(§ 50-a) creates a legal shield that prohibits disclosure, even when it is known that misconduct has occurred." FOIL's public poli- cy goals, which are to make government agencies and their employees accountable to the public, are thus undermined by the statute. Outright appeal of this statute will positively affect public trust in law enforcement and serve to hold police and other uniformed law enforcement officials to the same level of accountability applied to all other public employees."
The repeal of the provisions of 50-a is a long and much-needed step in the right direction in granting defendants a truly fair trial and allowing the jurors to fully assess every witness’ credibility without exclusion.
While many may believe that New York State Civil Rights Statutes will no longer contain a provision referenced as 50-a, that is misleading as 50-a will continue to be in existence.
However, under the current provisions, police officers no longer have wholesale protection against the public review of their possible prior immoral and bad acts. The current 50-a, however, does protect an officer’s:
- home address;
- email address;
- personal telephone number;
- any documents containing a reference to a police officer’s family members; as well as
- drug, alcohol, and psychiatric treatment records related to the officer’s employment.
The current 50-a clearly protects officers their family members and all party’s safety while no longer allowing officers to hide their work-related misconduct behind a cloak of secrecy.
Ask criminal defense attorneys who have tried a large number of cases in state and federal courts. They have watched prosecutors attempt to hold a defendant accountable for alleged misconduct and crimes – while introducing prior immoral vicious and criminal acts attributed to the defendants.
We deem it very important that the public is aware that our officers are given the benefit of the doubt on issues of credibility. In fact, our view is that the officer must actually be deserving of the support regarding their credibility because they are examples of what true law-abiding citizens should be.
Call Us Now
We are here to represent defendants in all types of criminal matters and government investigations – both federal and state. If you would like to know more about how to access police records and how the repeal of 50-a will apply to criminal and civil cases in 2020 and beyond, call The Blanch Law Firm now at (212) 736-3900.
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