By: Yitzchak Carroll | Features  | 

Law Review: Protecting Our Most Vulnerable

Few of us would argue against the notion that society has a moral imperative to protect those among us with developmental disabilities. But case law holdings do not always jive with popular consensus, and the protection of vulnerable populations is no exception. Recent appellate decisions have handcuffed those tasked with protecting individuals with special needs, while turning a blind eye to legislatively-enacted statutes meant to safeguard society’s most vulnerable.

The New York State Justice Center for the Protection of People With Special Needs (herein “Justice Center”) was established by statute in 2013. The Justice Center is charged with, inter alia, investigating and prosecuting cases of abuse and neglect of individuals with developmental disabilities. See N.Y. Executive Law § 550, et. seq. To this end, the Justice Center is statutorily mandated to employ a Special Prosecutor and Inspector General to oversee a team of attorneys with prosecutorial jurisdiction throughout New York State, including warrant applications and grand jury presentation. See e.g. N.Y. Executive Law § 552(2)(a)(i); see also N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law § 1.20(32). The organic statutes governing the Justice Center make it lucid that investigative and prosecutorial duties are at the heart of the agency’s mission.

To this end, the Justice Center retains concurrent jurisdiction along with local county-based districts attorneys in prosecutions involving the abuse of individuals with special needs. Id. While the organic statute directs the Justice Center to furnish assistance to local district attorneys as requested, and moreover, the statute orders the Justice Center to notify the local district attorney’s office of warrant applications, it specifically enumerates that failure to confer with the local district attorney’s office regarding a search warrant is not grounds for suppression of the resulting evidence. See e.g. N.Y. Executive Law § 552(2)(b). Additionally, the statute governing the prosecutorial bounds of the Justice Center directs its personnel to confer with the local district attorney “as to the time and place” of a felony-level court session or grand jury presentation, while noting that in such a case, Justice Center personnel stand in for the local district attorney and may exercise all the power granted thereof. See e.g. N.Y. Executive Law § 552(c). 

But New York courts have not always concurred. Recent appellate decisions have severely restricted the prosecutorial authority of the Justice Center, ignoring the organic statute’s prescriptions while turning a blind eye to the legislative intent behind the law. Instead of allowing the Justice Center’s prosecutors to do their jobs, appellate courts have held that local district attorneys must micromanage the Justice Center’s prosecutorial decisions at every stage and have the ability to intercede at will. Whereas statutes make it clear that the Justice Center’s prosecutorial powers are analogous with those of local district attorneys, case law has held otherwise. See N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law § 1.20(32).

To date, the New York Court of Appeals has only rendered one decision with regard to the Justice Center’s prosecutorial powers. See People v Davidson, 27 N.Y.3d 1083. In its majority opinion, the Court wrote “there is no indication from the statute that the special prosecutor's powers are limited” by the statutory provision directing the Justice Center to coordinate with the local district attorney regarding the time and place of court sessions. Id. at 1029. However, the minority dissent in Davidson raised constitutional concerns regarding unelected prosecutors and the potential transfer of autonomy from district attorneys to an official in the executive branch; to wit, the Justice Center’s Special Prosecutor. Id. at 1087; see also People ex rel. Wogan v. Rafferty, 208 N.Y. 451; see generally People v. Gilmour, 98 N.Y.2d 126. Citing a prior precedent that while a locally-elected, county-based district attorney can delegate prosecutorial duties, the district attorney themself must oversee prosecutions and hold the final say in all decisions pertaining therewith, the dissent held that the Justice Center may not prosecute a case “unilaterally” without the consent and oversight of the local district attorney in the county of jurisdiction. See Id. at 1036; see also People v. Soddano, 86 N.Y.2d 727; see generally Schumer v. Holtzman, 60 N.Y.2d 46.

The Court of Appeals’ jurisprudence on this matter has been complied with on the part of the Justice Center to a degree above and beyond the required standard set forth in Davidson. Indeed, prosecutions undertaken by Justice Center attorneys, with little hands-on involvement from local district attorneys, have withstood muster in court, though the Justice Center has made conscientious efforts to involve the local district attorney of jurisdiction in such matters. See People v. Theodore, 59 Misc. 3d 525. In Theodore, a local court held that the county district attorney need not be involved in micromanaging Justice Center prosecutions for such a prosecution to be permissible constitutionally. Id. at 528.

However, this past summer, the Albany-based Third Appellate Department turned the Justice Center’s prosecutorial jurisdiction on its head in a mind-boggling decision, severely restricting the agency’s autonomy. Instead of following the precedent set forth by the highest court in the state, the Appellate Division sided with the dissent in Davidson on a People’s appeal. See e.g. People v Hodgdon, 2019 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 5598. The Appellate Division held that it was unconstitutional for the Legislature to grant prosecutorial powers to a bureaucratic agency led by a non-elected gubernatorial appointee. Moreover, in Hodgdon, the court inferred from the verbiage of the organic statute that the Legislature presupposed the Justice Center to be subordinate to local district attorneys, while holding that the Justice Center may only bring a prosecution when it has obtained written consent from the local district attorney, who has furthermore also agreed to oversee the Justice Center’s prosecution. Id. at 6. The court’s reasoning in Hodgdon was also used as precedent in two other appeals before the Third Appellate Division to dismiss other similar indictments secured by the Justice Center. See People v Hope, 101 N.Y.S.3d 918; People v Viviani, 101 N.Y.S.3d 919.

The Third Appellate Department’s recent decisions are undoubtedly a cause for concern and a serious impediment to vulnerable persons abuse prosecutions going forward. Notwithstanding the clear intent of the statute to make such prosecutions easier — not harder — to bring, the precedent established of handcuffing prosecutors and restricting their ability to pursue otherwise-sound cases is deeply misguided and worthy of reconsideration. Our moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us demands no less.


Photo Caption: The precedent established of handcuffing prosecutors and restricting their ability to pursue otherwise-sound cases is deeply misguided and worthy of reconsideration.

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