Defense lawyers say a policy by the Bronx District Attorney is depriving defendants key information before trial. The attorneys want to know whether the arresting police officers in their cases were tainted in one of the biggest law enforcement scandals in city history, but the DA won't furnish that information until the case is in court.
The Bronx ticket-fixing scandal involves hundreds of police officers, who, prosecutors say, were caught on a phone tap asking for scores of tickets to disappear. Only sixteen of the accused ticket fixers were criminally charged – and all but one of those cases is still pending.
But that leaves possibly hundreds of officers who were departmentally disciplined, but not indicted -- and they’ve been making arrests ever since.
Despite defense attorney requests for that information before trial, Johnson is refusing to tell defendants if their arresting officer was one of the officers who was disciplined until the case goes to court.
Defendants may learn of the officer’s disciplinary record if they do go to trial, but most defendants take pleas long before their cases get that far. And many of those people say they might not have agreed to the same deal had they known the police officer who arrested them had a tainted reputation and prosecutors might have been willing to agree to a better deal if they knew he could be cross-examined about his misdeeds on the stand.
The practice is especially unfair because the DA has a ready list of officers who've asked for illegal favors on the phone tap, said Justine Olderman, who manages the Bronx Defenders Criminal Defense Practice. .
"The credibility of that officer, that they have held themselves out to be above the law in other instances goes to the very heart of the cases where our clients are charged," she said.
The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the union that represents NYPD officers, initially agreed to an interview for this story but backed out. The union has said that taking care of tickets is customary and a courtesy -- not a crime.
Johnson declined the I-Team’s request for an interview but an office spokesman issued a statement saying the DA's office follows the law.
“We comply with all of our legal obligations, which are designed to ensure that the defense has sufficient time to examine and use the material,” wrote spokeswoman Terry Raskyn. “This is simply an attempt by defense attorneys to use the media to effect change which has not been required by the courts or the legislature. Our practice is the same whether the witness be a civilian or a police officer.”
Even if a defendant finds out about a cop that was disciplined in the ticket-fixing scandal after going to trial, and the DA is forced to reveal the arresting officer is tainted or a tainted cop's identity emerges in an unrelated public trial, that information is highly restricted. In 2012, lawyers for the indicted officers won a sweeping gag order from Judge Steven Barrett, preventing defense lawyers from speaking publicly about specific cops caught on the phone tap.
Because of the pending case, Judge Barrett could not comment. But his gag order says the list of officers on the phone tap should be kept secret to prevent "invasion of privacy" and to avoid "pre-trial publicity" for the cops who are currently defendants.
If identities of all the other officers on that phone tap ever do come emerge, public defenders say it could jeopardize scores of past and future convictions.
"This evidence is relevant, not just for all the arrests that they had already made before they engaged in that act of wrong-doing. But it will be relevant to every case, for every client that they ever engage in an arrest on," Olderman said. “We're talking about thousands and thousands of cases."