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Statewide Rights Coalition Strongly Opposes Governor Pataki’s Antiterrorism Proposals

Governor Pataki’s proposed antiterrorism legislation will neither deter terrorists nor make New Yorkers safer according to participants at an Albany news conference today sponsored by the New York Bill of Rights Defense Campaign (NYBORDC).

At the news conference immigrants’ rights advocates, a constitutional law scholar, and civil rights and criminal defense lawyers presented a detailed and harshly critical assessment of Governor Pataki’s program bill (S.3-A), which was introduced at the request of the governor and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

The governor’s bill is the centerpiece of a legislative package of bills recently passed by the Senate. The bill proposes radical change in the law, allowing convictions based on illegally obtained evidence; subjecting a person found not guilty of a crime to be prosecuted again for the same offense; and permitting a conviction where the only evidence is the testimony of an alleged accomplice.

There was a concern, shared by all the speakers at today’s news conference, that the governor’s legislation, if enacted, will lead to faulty prosecutions, violations of basic civil rights, and to diversion of the state’s attention and resources from preventing acts of terrorism.

“The governor’s proposals reflect a conviction that it is necessary to suspend basic rights and liberties in order to secure public safety,” said Udi Ofer, director of the NYBORDC. “This is a dangerous tradeoff,” he said. “If anything, the governor’s apparent preoccupation with creating new criminal sanctions has diverted attention from shortcomings in the state’s efforts to secure infrastructure and protect public safety.”

Robert Perry, legislative director with the New York Civil Liberties Union, charged that “the proposed legislation would repeal fundamental protections of fairness and due process long recognized in New York law, and would actually create incentives to engage in unwarranted and wasteful criminal investigations.”

Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman said that the types of prosecutorial abuse “that threaten to derail a high-profile federal terrorism prosecution in Detroit would actually be encouraged under certain proposals in the governor’s bill.” He singled out a provision in the bill that would admit tainted evidence into court if a police officer claims it was obtained in “good faith”; and another that would permit conviction of a defendant based solely on the word of an alleged accomplice who offers his testimony in exchange for a reduced sentence.

According to Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, “there is a critical flaw in the premise on which the governor’s legislation is based: that a bigger prosecutorial hammer is going to deter international terrorists. Criminal sanctions under New York law are unlikely to deter such crimes. Should there be coordination of federal and local antiterrorism initiatives? Of course. But that’s not what these bills are about.”

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