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Top Court Hears Challenge to Queens DA’s Unlawful Interrogation Practices

The New York Court of Appeals heard arguments today in three cases challenging a Queens District Attorney’s office’s program of diverting people accused of crimes into an interrogation room before they are arraigned or have seen an attorney. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in January, the New York Civil Liberties Union contends that the program, which overwhelmingly affects low-income people of color, unconstitutionally denies the right to counsel and the right to a prompt court appearance after arrest.

The New York Court of Appeals heard arguments today in three cases challenging a Queens District Attorney’s office’s program of diverting people accused of crimes into an interrogation room before they are arraigned or have seen an attorney. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in January, the New York Civil Liberties Union contends that the program, which overwhelmingly affects low-income people of color, unconstitutionally denies the right to counsel and the right to a prompt court appearance after arrest.

“Intercepting and interrogating poor, vulnerable people without their defense attorneys present, moments before they appear in court, goes against the very safeguards our legal system has in place to protect their rights,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Since 2007 the District Attorney’s office’s interrogation practices have played fast and loose with the right to counsel guaranteed to all criminal defendants and in the process upset the balance of the criminal justice process in Queens County.”

Since 2007, the Queens DA has routinely intercepted defendants just moment before arraignment in order to interrogate them outside the presence of defense counsel. This interrogation program disproportionately impacts poor or indigent defendants, because wealthier suspects who promptly retain private attorneys can directly see a judge after arrest, which also may hasten their release to their homes, families and jobs while their case is being resolved.

But poor people, who must wait for their court-appointed attorney, are intercepted by the DA and interrogated alone by prosecutors in a room just next to the courtroom. Originally, the DA began this interrogation by reading a standard script to people that misleadingly implied that they will have no other opportunity to “tell us your story,” and asking them to waive their right to counsel. In reality, all these people would have had the ability to tell their story at their initial court appearance, but with the help and advice of defense counsel. More than 15,000 poor or indigent defendants have been interrogated by prosecutors under the program.

In a ruling on three separate cases challenging the DA’s interrogation tactics, the New York State Appellate Division, Second Department held that the script used by the DA violated the right against self-incrimination by rendering the familiar Miranda warning (“You have the right to remain silent…”) effectively meaningless. The NYCLU’s brief addresses these three cases after the Queens DA appealed the Second Department’s ruling.

While the Queens DA has altered the wording of the script since the program came under legal scrutiny, the NYCLU contends that the entire “intercepted interrogation” program is unconstitutional—regardless of any particular opening script—because it is purposefully designed to provide legally-trained prosecutors with one last shot at interrogating poor defendants without a lawyer present to mount a case against them. The NYCLU argues that the Court of Appeals should bring the entire program to an end.

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