The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit in state court seeking access to the judicial opinions in NYPD trials of police misconduct allegations already substantiated by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the independent oversight agency responsible for investigating complaints of police misconduct.

“Given the intense public debate over aggressive NYPD practices like stop-and-frisk, and the troubling recent reports of spying, ticket-fixing, and other abusive and unlawful police behavior, the public has every right to know how Commissioner Kelly is holding his officers accountable for substantiated misconduct,” NYCLU executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “Unfortunately, the NYPD has once against demonstrated that it prefers secrecy and stonewalling to transparency and accountability.”

Though the NYPD trials are open to the public, the Department refuses to disclose the written judicial opinions that decide the outcomes of those trials. The opinions show the NYPD’s legal and factual basis for its ruling concerning CCRB-substantiated misconduct complaints. They include a summary of trial testimony, factual findings and legal conclusions supporting the determination of an officer’s guilt and the appropriate penalty.
The NYCLU filed the lawsuit on April 13 in State Supreme Court of New York County.

In August 2011, the NYCLU filed a request under the state Freedom of Information Law seeking copies of all opinions from NYPD trials of CCRB-substantiated misconduct complaints since January 2001. The NYPD denied the entire request. After the NYCLU filed an administrative appeal of the blanket denial, the NYPD agreed to release redacted copies of the trial dispositions, which show the court’s finding of guilt or innocence and recommended disciplinary action. The Department still refused to turn over the judicial opinions.

“When it comes to officers charged with abusing civilians, it is crucial for the public to know how the Police Department’s judges are deciding cases,” said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, lead counsel on the case. “For too long, the work of NYPD judges has been hidden from public view. We are trying to end that through this case.”

After the CCRB substantiates a misconduct complaint, the case is referred to the NYPD, which assumes responsibility for it. The Department can simply drop the case, negotiate a plea with the officer, or prosecute the case in its Trial Room, an adjudicatory forum within the NYPD. In the relatively few number of cases that go to the Trial Room, the NYPD’s hearing process closely resembles a conventional trial. After the public hearing is concluded, the judge issues a written opinion. Commissioner Kelly reviews the opinion before making a final decision in the case.

NYCLU Liman Fellow Daniel Mullkoff is co-counsel on the case.