July 11, 2014

Jabbar Collins Settles State Law Claims

Jabbar Collins, who was wrongly prosecuted and convicted by Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes's office, and who then languished in prison for 16 years, has just settled his claims against the State of New York for $3 million, according to the New York Law Journal. His federal claims against the City of New York, and the prosecutors and detectives who framed him, will continue. This is good news for Collins, who has fought long and hard for this result.

It also may pave the way for the City to settle the federal action. With Hynes out of office, and a new Mayor and a new head of the Law Department running the show, there's no political impetus to keep protecting Hynes's flank. The Collins prosecution was a travesty, and Hynes's refusal to acknowledge it until long after it was derided as shameful in federal court, says a great deal about his legacy. It's time to settle accounts (a la the Central Park Five), and if Mayor de Blasio was the slightest bit sincere when he talked about the need to do what's right for those to whom so much wrong was done, Collins will receive his just due.

For those unfamiliar with these types of cases, the dual track civil suits result from the conflict between state laws that allow for the wrongly convicted to recover from the state, state law that limits jurisdiction of these suits, and the 11th Amendment that prohibits suits against the state in federal court

On the one hand, New York allows for suits against the state if you can establish a wrongful conviction (with certain limitations). However, you can only sue New York in New York's Court of Claims.

At the same time, the wrongly convicted may have state and federal claims against those state actors who deliberately brought it about, such as the officers who fabricated evidence and lied to prosecutors, as well as prosecutors whose offices' policies support the withholding of Brady material, and so forth. However, the Court of Claims' jurisdiction is limited to claims against the State of New York. This means that there is no supplemental jurisdiction; that claims against the individual state actors cannot be bundled together with the claims versus the state.

Hence, the state and federal claims must be litigated in either New York's Supreme Court (which is a court of general jurisdiction, as opposed to the Court of Claims, whose jurisdiction is limited) or in a federal district court. Hence, Jabbar Collins, like others (see, for instance, this post on Martin Tankleff), end up dual tracking their cases.

You might think that the plaintiff's damages claims would overlap, and to some extent they do. But they also differ. Collins's $3,000,000 settlement is simply for his loss of liberty for the past 16 years, not all the harms that flowed from that lost liberty. It is not intended to cover every category of physical and emotional injury that was inflicted upon him, or that he will continue to suffer from for years to come. These are the injuries for which Collins is seeking compensation from the remaining defendants.

If the State of New York owed Collins for holding him in jail and depriving him of his liberty, then the officers and prosecutors who worked to unlawfully bring about the conviction that placed him the state's custody, owe him for the grievous harms that this incarceration caused.

Collins's case is fascinating, and the ongoing civil suit in federal is worthy of a more detailed discussion. Hopefully that is coming.

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