NYCLU v. Erie County (Seeking access to expense records on county's legal defense of conditions at its jails)

State Supreme Court, Erie County, Index No. 2010-5715 (direct)

This case challenges Erie County’s refusal to release information about the use of taxpayer money to thwart federal and state investigations into conditions at two county correctional facilities.

In recent years, the county has aggressively resisted investigations, and subsequent legal challenges, by the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division and the New York State Commission of Correction regarding unconstitutional and inhumane conditions at the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.

On Oct. 8, 2009, the NYCLU filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request seeking records related to the expenditure of taxpayer funds to defend against investigations and legal actions involving conditions at the two facilities. The county denied the request in January. In February, it denied the NYCLU’s administrative appeal. The NYCLU filed the lawsuit, an Article 78 petition, in State Supreme Court for Erie County. Erie County and County Attorney Cheryl Green are named as defendants.

The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division notified the county in 2007 that it was investigating suicides and allegations of excessive force at the Erie County Holding Center. In August 2008, county officials barred federal inspectors from touring the Holding Center or the Erie County Correctional Facility unless a county attorney accompanied them and participated in interviews with jail staff and inmates.

The Civil Rights Division issued a report in July 2009 that described inhumane and unsafe conditions at both facilities and concluded that the county had failed to protect inmates’ civil rights. In September 2009, the Civil Rights Division filed a federal lawsuit after county officials continued to deny federal inspectors from the facilities independent access to the facilities.

Instead of agreeing to reform proposals to settle the lawsuit, the county has hired a private law firm to assist in its legal defense. According to press reports, the county is paying the law firm $425 per hour.

The county has been similarly combative toward the Commission of Correction, which oversees county jails. The commission sued Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard in September 2009 over conditions at the Holding Center, citing “myriad delinquencies” at the jail. A month later, the county barred state inspectors from interviewing the Holding Center’s staff without a county lawyer or video camera present. The inspectors were conducting a customary investigation following an inmate escape the previous day.

On Aug. 16, 2010, a State Supreme Court judge ruled that Erie County must release 10 years of information about the use of taxpayer money to thwart efforts to hold the county accountable for deaths and unconstitutional conditions at the two correctional facilities

NYCLU Upstate Litigation Coordinator Corey Stoughton and Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn are attorneys on this case.