Public Defender Orgs Urge Speaker Mark-Viverito to Call for Vote on Right to Know Act

New York – Representatives from public defense providers in New York City gathered today on the steps of the New York City Hall to urge Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to call for a vote on the Right to Know Act after the legislation has remained stalled in the Committee on Public Safety for over two years.

The proposed bills, which have broad support among City Council members, would require police to identify themselves when they stop someone, explain why the stop is taking place, and explain that the person has the right to refuse the search if there’s no legal basis for it.

“For too long, we’ve heard story after story from our clients about being stopped, questioned and searched by police officers with no idea who stopped them, why they were stopped and what to do if they felt their rights were violated,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “The Speaker and City Council have been on the frontlines of criminal justice reform many times and these reforms have made huge differences in the lives of our clients.  We urge the Speaker and City Council once again fight for justice and pass the Right to Know Act.”

A majority of the City Council has come out and publicly supported passage of the Right to Know Act. Despite this support, Speaker Mark-Viverito agreed to have some of the proposed changes implemented administratively by the NYPD instead of bringing a vote on the legislation before the entire City Council.

“It’s good that the NYPD is implementing new police search guidelines based on the Right to Know Act, but that is not enough. Guidelines can be ignored. We need enforceable laws to protect the rights of New Yorkers during these encounters,” said Craig Levine, Director of Policy Reform at The Bronx Defenders. “We often see cases of people being charged with resisting arrest because they asked why they were being stopped in the first place. The proposed legislation is about common sense and basic decency, and can go a long way toward improving police/community relations.”

Representatives of the organizations delivered an open letter to the Speaker’s office after the press conference. The letter highlights that, as service providers on the ground, public defenders can attest to the urgent need for these reforms first hand.

“Our clients and constituents are frequently stopped, searched or arrested by police officers, who are sometimes in plain clothes and not easily identifiable as NYPD, without ever receiving a full explanation as to why,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director, Brooklyn Defender Services. “At minimum this leads to confusion, frustration and humiliation, but also has been a catalyst for otherwise avoidable tragedies. The Right to Know Act presents commonsense rules – supported by a majority of the City Council – that will bring the police and the public closer to a clear understanding of what is expected from each of the parties during a law enforcement action. This benefits everyone.”

Signatories to the letter include The Legal Aid Society, The Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, The Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, New York County Defender Services, and Queens Law Associates, along with civil rights organizations the Center for Constitutional Rights, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the New York City Liberties Union.