The New York State appellate court is now hearing three cases of people who say they were questioned without a lawyer by the Queens District Attorney.
The plaintiffs were all suspects in custody for various crimes and were waiting in the courthouse, expecting to go before a judge.
Instead, they were brought into an interrogation room, asked a series of questions about their cases, and given the opportunity to speak about their alleged crimes.
The New York Civil Liberties Union says this practice is both unconstitutional and unethical because it turns up evidence that could be used against suspects in court.
The NYCLU claims the Queens DA has compromised the rights of perhaps thousands of suspects since it started this practice in 2007.
Parties in the three cases now before the appellate court can’t talk to the press. But people whose cases are closed can.
Deonte Jones : I was just like real uncomfortable with the whole situation.
That’s Deonte Jones, who was cleared of robbery charges this week.
On July 12th of last year, he was taken out of a holding cell in the courthouse by Mary Picone. Jones thought she was his public defender.
She quickly explained she was an investigator from the district attorney’s office, and took him to a room, where an assistant DA joined them.
Door Sound have a seat in that chair … we are going to explain to you what you are doing here …
In the videotape of the interrogation the camera focuses mainly on Jones, who’s wearing a blue t-shirt and a worried look as Picone begins.
Investigator: … okay today is July 12th, 2011, it is 6:56 p.m. We are present in the interview room of the Queens County District Attorney’s Office Central Booking Room.
She’s working from a script, meant for all kinds of suspects. It includes a long list of options for defendants about what the DA’s office can do on their behalf, like investigating alibis and other information.
Investigator: If your version of what happened is different than what we have been told, this is an opportunity if you so choose, to tell us your story. If there something that you like us to investigate regarding this incident, if you tell me about, we will look into it.
Jones is read his rights and agrees to talk.
This week —with his lawyer present — Jones watched the nine minute video of his interrogation.
Deonte: I felt like they tried to ask me the same question over and over again to see if I would change my answer.
On the tape, Jones says he saw a fight and walked away and he sticks to this, even after several minutes of intense questioning.
But other defendants have run into trouble, says New York Civil Liberties Union attorney Taylor Pendergrass. He says once the suspects are brought into the interrogation room, they are asked questions they think could clear them.
Pendergrass says the opposite is true.
Pendergrass: The District Attorney is strategically and, I would say cynically, exploiting this window of time just before suspects are going to be appointed criminal defense attorneys in order to take this uncounseled interrogations.
Pendergrass says the questioning violates a suspect’s right to get in front of a judge quickly. He explains that’s part of the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. And Pendergrass says there’s something else.
Pendergrass: The assistant district attorney reads this very misleading script to suspects that makes it seems like it is in their best interests, the suspects best interests, completely violates the Fifth Amendment Right not to self incriminate.
A spokeswoman for the Queens County District Attorney’s office declined to comment for the story, saying the city doesn’t talk about pending litigation.
She also declined to speak generally about how the DA questions defendants.
Pendergrass maintains the Queen’s DA has said in court that it uses these interrogations to exonerate people and dismiss cases.
Deonte Jones’ lawyer, Michael Siff, says the questioning confuses suspects about who is prosecuting them and who is defending them.
Siffe: I think that there are major issues because you have a lawyer that is there saying that they are there to help the defendant so the defendant is putting their trust in attorney, who’s putting forth promises they may not be able to keep.
The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a friend of the court brief in the three cases now before the New York appellate court. It asks to suppress evidence gathered during the DA’s interrogations. But the organization’s main goal is to have the court call for the DA to stop the interrogations all together.
Pendergrass says there could a decision by the end of this year.
Mackenzie Issler, Columbia Radio News.