Sunday mornings I wake up bright and early to head to Rikers Island with a group of Fordham Law School students. We volunteer with the 16-18 year old male youth that are housed in the Robert N. Davoren Complex (RNDC) at Rikers. Based on the curriculum developed by some of the law students in the Prisoners Rights Advocates group, we teach the young men about their rights with respect to the 4th, 5th, and 6th amendments. Unfortunately true to what we know and what we have been told, most of the men we’ve seen there are Black and Latino.
Since we get to RNDC around 9am, the guys are usually being awoken upon our arrival (which can probably suck on a Sunday morning). The workshop literally takes place in their living area, so while most of us sit in a big circle, some of the guys choose to sit on their beds to listen and participate. As with any regular class setting, we have a few guys that are always participating, the guys somewhere in the middle, and those who don’t say anything at all. But ultimately, the hope is that each and every one of them is getting something useful out of each lesson.
We’re there to inform them of what their rights are, what the law is, engage discussion with them and ultimately learn from them. And they’re there to learn a bit about the law, tell us how the law actually is applied through their own experiences, and engage in discussion with us and each other. For me, one of the the most difficult but important parts of going there every Sunday is hearing the (pre-incarceration) experiences of the young men there and their thoughts on the law and how it is applied.
When we talked about Terry Stops, or what many know as “stop-and-frisks,” they spoke of their frustration with the unfair and biased nature that “stop-and-frisks” are often carried out by the NYPD. The Center for Constitutional Rights actually has an active federal class action lawsuit, Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, et al., against the NYPD’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisks and their use of racial profiling. CCR has been instrumental in raising awareness and gathering statistics on NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, as well as the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Some of the guys also expressed frustration with their public defenders. Some complained of lack of communication, annoyance with being asked to take a plea, and others thought that their attorneys were working against them hand-in-hand with the prosecutors on the opposing side. We tried to assure them that many public defenders are well-meaning but are burdened with huge caseloads of 100+, limited time to really talk extensively with their clients before seeing the judge, and the smaller salaries as a result of the lack of funding public defender offices receive from the government. But then I thought to myself, how much does that really matter to someone who is incarcerated or to someone when they’re about to see a judge? How does that help their present situation? Should they really care? These thoughts came to mind because while I felt it was necessary for them to know a bit about being a PD, I didn’t want to come across as trying to convince them that they must feel sympathetic and just accept it…for lack of a better way to put it.
Although the Supreme Court said that juveniles in juvenile court, are not entitled to a jury trial in federal court ,we did take some time to discuss rights to an impartial jury in a trial. Today there are 20 states that allow for a trial by jury for certain crimes if a jury is requested. However, New York does not allow juries in any kind of juvenile court case. This can only happen in New York if the juvenile is being tried as an adult. During this workshop, the sentencing issues in cases like Sean Bell and Oscar Grant came up in discussion. This was probably the most difficult class for me. One guy asked how is it that a police officer could get off for murdering someone like Sean Bell but if the situation is flipped and the officer is the one murdered by a regular person, it could mean life imprisonment. I could feel my heart breaking and small tears forming just at hearing that question. While one of my co-instructors gave their response to the question (which I can’t remember), I sat there for a moment thinking. I thought of the heartbreaking moment when I learned that Oscar Grant‘s killer and former police officer, Johannes Mehserle, only got sentenced to 2 years in prison. He ended up serving less than a year which was even more enraging. In response to the young man’s question, I could only say that there are real problems with our justice system and that sentencing is unfairly less harsh for law enforcement and often non-existent but that it’s all of our jobs to do something about it if we want it to change. We spoke a bit more about it after class and also talked about the latest news coverage on the NYPD planting drugs on people in order to arrest them and meet their quotas.
Tomorrow morning is the mock trial the guys participate in at the close of the program. We’ll have them playing different roles: defense attorneys, prosecutors, jury, witnesses, defendant, and so on. We have outside attorneys come in to act as the judges. The guys were really excited about it and apparently this is the most fun part of the program so I’m really looking forward to seeing how the guys do.
Have you been stopped by the NYPD? Tell us your story.
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) is collecting testimonies from New Yorkers who have been stopped by the NYPD. This collection of stories will appear in an upcoming report that documents the impact of stop-and-frisk on peoples’ lives, highlights data regularly provided by the NYPD (CCR receives this data regularly as part of our legal action against the NYPD) and discusses relevant human rights standards.
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The NYCLU is building evidence that the NYPD’s over-reliance on broken windows policing not only places far too many New Yorkers into the criminal justice system but also has negative effects on public safety. We are currently surveying thousands of New Yorkers to find out what effects broken windows policing has on their lives.
Four Your Reference: Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment Text
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.