Constitutional Law Criminal Law

NY Attorney General Announces Sweeping Changes to Help the Unjustly Convicted

NYS State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced that he will propose legislation that revises Section 8-b of the New York State Court of Claims Act, which allows people who are wrongfully convicted of a crime, imprisoned and subsequently had their convictions overturned to present a claim for damages against the state. The Attorney General’s “Unjust Imprisonment Act” would remove burdensome provisions from current law – barriers that can preclude people who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned from recovering damages from the State of New York.

Adopted in 1984 and updated in 2007, the current law can prevent certain people from recovering damages from the State after having been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated. The proposed legislation allows those who can prove their actual innocence, even after pleading guilty, to pursue a claim. The Attorney General stated in a conference at John Jay College today:

“Those who are wrongfully convicted and unjustly deprived of liberty must be allowed to put their lives back together again, and we have a moral obligation to help them do so,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “The legal reforms we are proposing today are critically important not just to the futures of the people wrongfully convicted by our criminal justice system, but to our future as a just society. The Unjust Imprisonment Act will remove unjust and unnecessary burdens on those who have been imprisoned for a crime they did not commit.”

Blind and occasionally fickle
Blind and occasionally fickle
The Unjust Imprisonment Act would amend the law to clarify that a person who falsely confessed or pleaded guilty to a crime he or she did not commit may still be eligible to pursue a claim for damages under Section 8-b. Under current law, a person whose conviction was overturned may pursue a claim only if that person can show he “did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction.” People who falsely confess or plead guilty to crimes they did not commit may be considered to have “caused or brought about” their conviction. As I have previously (and repeatedly) reported on this blog, many exonerated individuals had previously falsely confessed to their crimes. The current law includes an overly broad exclusion that disregards certain extenuating, but all too common, circumstances for a false confession. As the Attorney General stated:”It doubly victimizes innocent people who were in fear for their lives, who had a nervous, mental or psychological problem, or were simply too young to know better, so they admitted doing something they didn’t do.”

The amendments to The Unjust Imprisonment Act would also undo a procedural snag that has caused some cases to be dismissed for improper paperwork. Under current law, a claimant must personally verify his claim in cases involving unjust conviction and imprisonment, with no ability to correct an improperly verified claim once the 2-year statute of limitations has expired.The proposed new changes would amend the law to allow those whose claims are dismissed for failure to personally verify their claim to correct the mistake and resubmit the claim.

Another important amendment would expand the existing grounds for dismissal of a case that can form the basis of a claim under Section 8-b. The current list of “eligible grounds” for 8-b relief is very narrow and, quite inexplicably, excludes cases where the dismissal was based on a violation of the claimant’s constitutional rights or on post-conviction DNA evidence indicating that the claimant was “actually innocent.” The new bill broadens the list of dismissal grounds that can form the basis of a claim under Section 8-b, and thereby help to ensure that the truly innocent are not denied their day in court.

Finally, the new Unjust Imprisonment Act would extend by one year the statute of limitations for filing a claim for damages by those who seek to prove they were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.

What’s important to recognize is that the State here is voluntarily taking on more liability. Under the Act, even under the old Act, you did not have to prove that the State did anything wrong (through police or a DA’s Office or other State agency). This Act addresses unjust convictions caused by the system in general without any specific proof that some agent withheld evidence or used false testimony to convict someone wrongfully. Folks with proof of specific wrongdoing could always proceed in regular State or Federal court with claims of civil rights violations, false arrest etc. This statute is essentially a “no-fault” statute that allows you to sue the State if your conviction was later overturned for one of the listed reasons (including your innocence being established).

The expansion of those reasons was long overdue as were all the other changes the Attorney General announced today. The claims under the Act are brought in the Court of Claims, which only allows non-jury trials before State-appointed judges. Judges have traditionally awarded about $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration on these claims which I have always felt was very low; in an article I wrote for the New York Law Journal about 10 years ago I called for reform allowing for jury trials on these claims as well as for some of the changes AG Schneiderman proposed today. While jury trials are never going to happen in my lifetime in the State Court of Claims, the Attorney General’s proposals here are ground-breaking enough and a giant leap in the right direction. Certainly he was driven by the regular and mounting evidence of the pervasiveness of wrongful convictions in our criminal justice system. But it took a lot of courage and principle for him to literally put his money where his mouth is and provide redress for those who were failed by the system. Kudos to AG Schneiderman and his office for stepping up to the plate on behalf of the wrongfully convicted.

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