Federal Judge Rules City is No Longer Fiscally Liable for Prosecutor Errors
BROOKLYN — A federal judge has issued a landmark decision, ruling the city is no longer financially on the hook in civil cases alleging prosecutorial misconduct, DNAinfo New York has learned.
The ruling by Judge Jack Weinstein of the Eastern District will likely have enormous impact on reducing the size of payouts in future civil lawsuits, particularly those involving allegations of wrongful convictions such as the highly-publicized case of Jabbar Collins, who was released from prison after 15 years for a rabbi's murder, court observers and legal experts told “On The Inside.”
“The impact for the city is large,” one city official said. “We are talking tens and tens of millions of dollars going forward, at the least.”
In his decision, Weinstein determined that the city was no longer liable for the actions of prosecutors because they are agencies of the state — and the city has no control over their policy or training.
“Given the District Attorney’s absolute independence with respect to decisions on procedures in prosecuting criminal cases, it seems strange to hold the city responsible for prosecutorial policy choices made by the district attorney,” Weinstein wrote in his Dec. 20, decision.
He added that it made no sense for the city to be held “liable for polices made by a district attorney when no officers or agency of the city, including the mayor, exercises any authority to control the decision,” he went on.
Prior to his edict, the city was an easy target for civil attorneys because the city pays the prosecutors’ salaries.
Weinstein determined that paying salaries did not mean the city should also be held responsible for a prosecutor’s court conduct.
Under existing federal and state law, district attorneys and prosecutors were already immune from being sued personally. The only legal avenue against them would be if a defendant could prove that an office has a pattern of mistakes that stem from a failure in training — but officials say that is highly improbable.
While Weinstein’s decision is considered historic, the case from which it stems was an obscure, virtually frivolous lawsuit.
The suit was filed by Jermal Jones, 35, a convict serving 40 years for rape and burglary.
Jones was initially arrested on Nov. 11, 2007, in a separate case in which he was charged with harassing his girlfriend and sexually assaulting her young daughter. He spent 45 days in jail before being released on bail.
Nearly two years later, his girlfriend recanted and eventually the indictment against him was dismissed in December 2010.
But, in the meantime, Jones was indicted in 2008 for a rape and burglary that occurred in 2002. He was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Despite being incarcerated for the rape, Jones filed a wrongful prosecution suit against the city, the Kings County District Attorney's Office and prosecutors Tina Fay and Connie Solange, in connection with the girlfriend’s case.
Acting as his own lawyer, he claimed prosecutors wrongfully withheld evidence that resulted in him spending 45 days in jail.
Patrick Neil Beath from the Law Department defended the city. And on Dec. 20, 2013, Weinstein ruled against Jones. Sources say Weinstein was apparently anxious to weigh in on the issue of the city’s liability in DA cases and he decided to use the Jones lawsuit as an opportunity to settle that longstanding issue, sources say.
His ruling does not prohibit litigants from going after prosecutors who commit serious offenses beyond the scope of their courtroom duties.
But those types of offenses are likely to spill over into the realm of criminal conduct rather than civil when, for example, a prosecutor willfully frames a defendant. In those cases, the prosecutor could face arrest, but is not subject to civil action, authorities say.
Cases involving misconduct by the police remain untouched by Weinstein’s ruling, officials noted.