NYPD Wrongful Convictions
Wrongful arrests and convictions can happen anywhere. Recently, news broke about hundreds of convictions in New York City that may have been obtained through corrupt practices by the NYPD.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office reviewed over 1,100 cases that involved 22 NYPD officers who were convicted of official corruption. Of those cases, 316 were vacated due to evidence that the corrupt officers violated the constitutional or civil rights of those arrested and convicted.
Brooklyn’s district attorney vacated another 378 criminal convictions for the same practices committed by different NYPD officers.
What Happened in New York?
The situation that unfolded in New York was very unusual. Between 1996 and 2017, 35 NYPD officers, 22 in Manhattan and 13 in Brooklyn, made thousands of arrests. These officers were later found to have engaged in illegal and corrupt practices.
The police officers were convicted of official corruption in view of allegations they violated New York laws while investigating, arresting, and testifying against suspects. Some violations they committed included:
- Planting evidence
- Accepting bribes
- Coercing suspects into performing sex acts
- Lying under oath and giving false testimony
- Conducting illegal searches
- Paying off informants
Most of these officers were sentenced to at least some jail time. A few received probation. All of them were fired from the NYPD.
Why Were Some Convictions Vacated?
Federal and New York state laws prohibit government officials from violating the civil rights of any person, including those accused of crimes. Civil rights include the rights provided by the U.S. and New York constitutions.
These laws provide substantive protections for criminal suspects and defendants, such as:
- Prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures
- Protections against illegal arrests
- Preservation of due process in criminal proceedings
When officials violate these protections, the suspect’s arrest and conviction are tainted. The prosecutor’s office can vacate the conviction even if the suspect committed the crime. The theory is that the state, with all of its power and resources, must always follow the rules when investigating, arresting, and convicting the accused.
The prosecutor’s office can take this action on its own. A wrongful conviction attorney can also request a review from the prosecutor’s office. In theory, prosecutors have an ethical duty to investigate reasonable allegations made by lawyers for wrongfully accused people who may have been convicted outside the bounds of the law.
Prosecutors require solid evidence of a wrongful conviction before taking action. They are often reluctant to revisit old cases because they feel criminal defendants will perpetually relitigate their cases, looking for a way out.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office has a Post-Conviction Justice Unit specifically tasked with reviewing questionable cases. After sending the 22 corrupt NYPD officers to jail, the unit reviewed 1,100 of their cases without prompting from wrongful incarceration attorneys.
This unit has had its hands full reviewing convictions secured by dirty cops. Just eight months earlier, the same unit vacated 188 convictions in cases tainted by eight corrupt NYPD officers. This means the Manhattan DA’s office vacated over 500 convictions in less than a year due to police corruption.
Alternatives to Prosecutorial Review
After the Manhattan DA reviewed 1,100 convictions, it vacated 316 of them. But more than 780 convictions were allowed to stand. You might wonder if lawyers for wrongful convictions have any recourse after prosecutors decide not to vacate an improperly conducted case. Fortunately, a wrongfully accused client and their attorney have two additional options to pursue justice.
Habeas Corpus Petition
The U.S. Constitution gives prisoners the right to file habeas corpus petitions. The literal translation of “habeas corpus” is “have the body.” It refers to a judge’s power to bring an incarcerated person before them to determine whether they have been wrongfully detained.
People who were convicted and incarcerated due to the actions of the corrupt NYPD officers could file a habeas corpus petition. This petition would lay out the reasons the court should intervene.
Habeas corpus petitions were specifically designed to raise legal and technical issues regarding the prisoner’s incarceration rather than issues of guilt or innocence. As a result, these petitions provide the perfect vehicle for a wrongful conviction lawyer to raise corruption issues.
The drawbacks to a habeas corpus petition include:
- You must be in custody or on supervised release when you file the petition
- You must have exhausted all your appeals
- The petition must raise new issues not already appealed
Most of the cases vacated by the Manhattan DA’s office were misdemeanors that only resulted in fines. Only 57 of the 316 cases resulted in the incarceration of the wrongfully convicted person. This means many of the cases allowed to stand involved serious charges that brought jail or prison sentences.
Since the cases date between 1996 to 2017, many are old enough that the wrongfully incarcerated individual has exhausted their appeals. And because some of the allegations against the NYPD officers came to light only within the past few years, a petition can probably include new issues not previously litigated by the person’s wrongfully accused lawyer.
New York’s governor has the authority to grant clemency to convicted individuals. The governor’s office considers pardons to be extraordinary remedies that are issued only in special circumstances. But in the case of NYPD corruption, the governor’s office might consider a pardon application.
A pardon means you have all legal disabilities connected with your conviction removed. The pardon does not remove your conviction from your criminal history. It will still show up on a background check. But your record will show that you received a pardon.
The governor’s office will consider a pardon only when the convicted person has satisfied all the terms of their sentence, including:
- Paying all fines
- Serving all required jail or prison time
- Completing all community service, probation, and parole
The petitioner must also address how much time has passed since the conviction, with more time working in the petitioner’s favor. The petition must explain the need for the pardon. And petitioners are more likely to receive a pardon if they show they have not had any legal trouble since the wrongful conviction.
Pardons are not necessarily a perfect fit for wrongful convictions. But if your case was not vacated by the DA’s office and you are no longer in custody, a pardon might provide some relief from your conviction. Specifically, a pardon can reverse the impact of a conviction on:
- Lease applications
- Job or professional licensing requirements
- Gun ownership rights
Although individuals can prepare a pardon petition without legal representation, you should consider speaking to a lawyer before filing to make sure you have chosen the right option for your case.
Lessons to Draw from the NYPD Cases
The NYPD cases provide mixed lessons. On the one hand, it is shocking that over 800 people in two boroughs were wrongfully convicted due to police corruption. Despite their protests of innocence, prosecutors, judges, and jurors were deceived by planted evidence, false testimony, and illegal searches.
On the other hand, the Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys took fair and just action by vacating wrongful convictions tainted by the actions of corrupt officers. For those who did not have their convictions vacated, there is still hope that prosecutors will take action as additional information comes to light.
Finally, these cases show that people with wrongful convictions should remain hopeful that they can overcome their convictions. Prosecutors, judges, and governors have the authority to restore justice in unjust cases.
Contact our Wrongful Conviction Attorneys Today
If you believe you or someone you know was wrongfully convicted as part of this event or others, you should speak to a wrongful conviction attorney about your legal rights.
Contact our office for a free consultation to discuss your legal options - our expert team is here to help you get the justice you deserve.