March 5, 2015

The 2d Circuit's Busy Week, Pt. 3

The third civil rights decision issued by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals last week promptly cost the City of New York more than $18 million. It also visited the issue of whether a convicted person seeking exculpatory evidence under state law can pursue a claim for damages under §1983 when a local government's policies frustrate or otherwise prevent the very access promised by state law, and concluded that, at least here, such a cause of action may stand.

In 1985, Alan Newtown was convicted of the brutal rape and robbery of a woman in the Bronx. The post-conviction motion practice and events are detailed in the decision below. The condensed version is that in the mid-1990s, Newton sought the DNA evidence for testing, but it was reported lost by the NYPD and the Bronx D.A.'s office. It was not until 10 years later that it turned up. DNA testing conducted in 2006 conclusively established that the DNA from the rape kit did not match Newton's, and, Newton's conviction was promptly vacated. By then, he had spent more than 20 years in prison.

Newton subsequently sued New York City and various officials in the NYPD, claiming that the City’s evidence management system was inadequate and thus violated his his rights to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment and access to the courts under the First Amendment. The jury sided with Newton and awarded him $18 million. United States District Judge Shira Scheindlin set aside the verdict, finding that Newton's claims were barred by prior caselaw. This appellate decision reversed that finding and reinstated his award under the Fourteenth Amendment. Newton's First Amendment claim became moot as it covered the same damages (and was dismissed by the district court as a result of the dismissal of the Fourteenthen Amendment claim). The Second Circuit remanded this issue back to the district court, which is likely to find it need not rule directly, since it would not alter the outcome that has now been ordered by the Court of Appeals.

The decision is important for Newton because now he gets paid. On a different level, the case is significant in that the Second Circuit determined that a local government's failure to maintain an evidence management system that could adequately track and produce DNA evidence could, where this results in demonstrable injury in a post-conviction setting, be compensable as a constitutional violation.

The analysis started with the acknowledgement that, as per the Supreme Court, convicted persons have "no freestanding substantive due process right to DNA evidence" under federal law or the constitution. However, New York law conferred upon him a right to this evidence, as well as a procedure to follow to both obtain the evidence and pursue any viable claims for relief. Newton's complaint was not that New York or federal law was deficient in some way, but rather that the City of New York "undermin[ed] the State’s procedures by its recklessly chaotic evidence management system."

The Second Circuit noted that,"This is hardly a new concept. In other contexts we have permitted plaintiffs to pursue claims against municipalities for deprivations of State‐created interests," which is precisely what Newton was seeking to do here. More precisely, the Court held,
Newton was not entitled to the preservation of evidence under State law, but only to a faithful accounting of the evidence in the City’s possession. We do not decide what specific City procedure is necessary to manage and track evidence. We simply reinstate a jury verdict that found that the then‐existing system was inadequate and that the City, through its agents, servants, or employees, intentionally or recklessly administered an evidence management system that was constitutionally inadequate and that prevented Newton from vindicating his liberty interest in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.   
The decision follows below. Meanwhile, the underlying criminal case stands as a reminder of the fallibility of our criminal justice system, and the inherent dangers of wrongful prosecutions and convictions, intentionally or otherwise. Not only has Alan Newton suffered immensely, but the victim was denied the justice she deserved while the guilty party escaped altogether.

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