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Bill Proposes Greater Accountability for New York Prosecutors Who Break the Law

With his signature, Gov. Andrew Cuomo could create an independent state commission to investigate and sanction prosecutors who withhold evidence or commit other abuses.

Update, Aug. 28, 2018: Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed the bill into law with the caveat that the Legislature will amend the bill next session to address constitutional concerns.

In 2013, ProPublica published a series of reports finding that New York prosecutors are almost never punished for misconduct that can land innocent people in prison or let the guilty go free.

That could change in the coming days.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has a bill before him that would create a commission to bring a greater measure of accountability to prosecutors who withhold evidence, suborn perjury or commit other ethical violations that undermine justice. It would be the first of its kind in the country and conceivably create a model for other states to follow.

The bill, passed overwhelmingly by the Senate and Assembly in June, authorizes the governor, the Legislature and the state’s chief judge to pick 11 people to investigate allegations of misconduct. The panel, when it sees fit, could issue warnings and recommend sanctions, or even firings, to the governor.

Now, prosecutors are overseen like any other lawyer — by disciplinary committees attached to the state’s appellate courts. But ProPublica’s 2013 analysis found that even when convictions are thrown out as a result of harmful misconduct on the part of prosecutors, the appellate courts often fail to refer them to disciplinary committees.

In the two dozen instances in which judges explicitly concluded that New York City prosecutors had committed misconduct, only one prosecutor was disciplined. That prosecutor flouted the law in three separate cases. Other prosecutors went on to earn promotions and get raises.

Meanwhile, New York City and state taxpayers have had to dole out tens of millions of dollars in settlements for wrongfully convicted people who went on to successfully sue.

The bill’s backers say that the commission will help remedy the situation both by punishing prosecutors who deserve it and forcing them to reconsider tactics that lead to such harm.

But the bill has met staunch opposition from the district attorneys themselves who wield significant power in Albany.

In a statement, the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York said that existing systems should be strengthened, and that the commission will have unchecked, duplicative powers that will interfere with a prosecutor’s ability to fully enforce the law.

Cuomo has until Monday to veto or approve the bill.

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Portrait of Joaquin Sapien

Joaquin Sapien

Joaquin Sapien is a reporter at ProPublica covering criminal justice and social services.

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