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NYPD Allegedly Destroyed Evidence in Civil Rights Lawsuit

Lawyers in the suit say the NYPD issued bogus summonses to people not guilty of any crime in poor and minority neighborhoods, then destroyed the evidence.

by Tess Owen
Jul 6 2015, 7:05pm

Mary Altaffer/AP

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According to new documents, the NYPD and its attorneys allegedly destroyed evidence pertaining to 850,000 criminal court summonses that were issued by officers without probable cause, The NY Daily News reports.

Summons court is a cog in New York's judicial system. It handles minor criminal violations such as loitering, drinking in public, riding your bicycle on the pavement, disorderly conduct or public urination. The majority of people who show up to summons court have their cases dismissed, on the grounds of insufficient probable cause. More than a fifth of the summonses issued in 2011 were dismissed, The New York Times reported.

This pattern of dismissal has made summons court the focus of a civil rights lawsuit, which alleges the pink slips summoning people to criminal court are disproportionately handed out in poor, minority neighborhoods, and that NYPD's unreasonably high quota systems in these neighborhoods are to blame.

The lawsuit, titled "Stinson vs. City of New York," was granted class-action status by a federal court judge in Manhattan in 2012.

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Elinor Sutton, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs against the the City of New York, says the city failed to preserve relevant evidence that suggested officers were arbitrarily handing out summons to meet precinct quotas.

"Defendants have acted with a culpable state of mind" Sutton wrote in a letter to Judge Robert Sweet, the federal court judge overseeing the case, "by destroying relevant electronic and hard-copy documents."

Sutton says the city's attorneys claim that the files of the former police commissioner and chief do not contain any documents relating to summons activity is ridiculous.

"It is simply not tenable that Commissioner Kelly and Chief Esposito did not — in the entire period of 2007 through to the present — write or receive emails using terms related to the word 'summons'" Sutton wrote in the letter to the judge.

Emails involving other NYPD officials, brought forward by whistleblowers or obtained by Sutton through third-party subpoena orders, suggest that officers who failed to meet arbitrary quotas risked poor performance evaluations and other forms of retaliation.

Sutton obtained a text message from a whistleblower, The NY Daily News reports, which shows a sergeant sternly reprimanding a beat cop for failing to meet the precinct's seatbelt summons quota. The text, from Sgt Carly, reads: "we missed seat belt number by 30 last week unacceptable. if need be u guys will go with me 2 traffic stat 2 explain why u missed it."

The NYPD has a policy called Operations Order 44, which permits officers to shred department directives such as roll calls, bureau chief memos, police officer monthly performance reports, and command discipline logs.

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In the letter to the federal court judge, Sutton cited a detective who alleges sergeants would often distribute training materials during roll call which describes the level of suspicion necessary to issue a summonses.

Sutton alleges that the City failed to place a hold on any departmental documents for three years, even though they were aware the records relevant to the civil rights lawsuit could be destroyed under Operations Order 44.

Sutton reminded the judge that once a party anticipates litigation, it must "suspend its routine document destruction policy" and place a hold on all documents that might be considered relevant. 

The city's actions constitute either "bad faith" or "gross negligence" charges Sutton. "Bad faith" implies that the department actively and intentionally withheld or destroyed damning evidence. "Gross negligence", Sutton writes, suggests the City was purposefully "sluggish" and ineffective by failing to ensure relevant documents were kept. 

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen

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