Thursday, April 15th, 2021

A Reminder to Request Complaints Against Police Officers

As Judge McMahon recently reminded in Fraser v. City of New York, 2021 WL 1338795 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 9, 2021), defendants in criminal cases should always ask the government to comply with its multiple obligations under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), by turning over all complaints against police officers involved in the case.

Jawaun Fraser wrongfully served two years in New York state prison after being convicted of robbery on the testimony of police officers sued numerous times for testifying falsely.  Both the prosecutor and officers had withheld information about several of those suits, and upon learning this Fraser succeeded in getting his conviction thrown out.  The state did not appeal that ruling or re-prosecute Fraser for robbery (he instead pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, which is not even a misdemeanor).  Fraser then sued for damages in federal court, where the officers moved to dismiss the complaint on two grounds: “First, that no civil lawsuit that has been publicly docketed can ever be considered ‘suppressed’ for purposes of Brady; and second, that police officers – as a matter of law – do not have an obligation under Brady to disclose their involvement in unrelated civil rights lawsuits.”  Fraser, 2021 WL 1338795, at *5.

Judge McMahon would have none of that, especially as the Second Circuit has rejected both arguments.  The “‘government’s duty to produce [exculpatory material]’ is not ‘eliminated by that document’s availability in a public court file.'”  Id. at *6 (quoting United States v. Payne, 63 F. 3d 1200, 1209 (2d Cir. 1995)).  And “‘[w]hen police officers withhold exculpatory or impeaching evidence from prosecutors, they may be held liable under § 1983 for violating the disclosure requirements of Brady.”  Idat *7 (quoting Bellamy v. City of New York, 914 F.3d 727, 751 (2d Cir. 2019)).

It makes no difference that the New York Court of Appeals has drawn a line “between the nondisclosure of police misconduct ‘which has some bearing on the case against the defendant,’ and the nondisclosure of such material which has ‘no relationship to the case against the defendant, except insofar as it would be used for impeachment purposes.'”  People v. Garrett, 23 N.Y.3d 878, 889 (2014) (citations omitted).

“The distinction in Garrett is one that – to [Judge McMahon’s] knowledge – no federal court assessing § 1983 claims has ever made.”  Fraser, 2021 WL 1338795, at *8.  “As long as the evidence could be used to impeach a key witness, a police officer is obligated to share that information with the prosecutor because ‘the jury’s estimate of the truthfulness and reliability of a given witness may well be determinative of guilt or innocence.'”  Id. (citations omitted).  “Put simply, police officers who are key prosecution witnesses in a criminal trial are obligated under Brady to disclose the existence of civil lawsuits or other allegations of misconduct filed against them that bear on their credibility.”  Id.

In addition to asking the government to turn over complaints against police officers, defense counsel can search the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board database at:
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