Nassau District Court Judge Andrew Engel can require prosecutors to turn over to drunken-driving defendants all disciplinary records of police officers testifying against them, according to a new ruling in a case county law enforcement officials brought against the jurist.
In an opinion that will add to the statewide debate over the records issue, state Supreme Court Justice Roy Mahon’s decision lifted a temporary restraining order he granted in January at the request of the Nassau police commissioner, the district attorney and the county itself.
The order had prevented Engel, who handles mostly DWI cases, from keeping prosecutors from going forward with cases in which they hadn't disclosed the disciplinary records.
Mahon agreed with Engel’s interpretation of a 2020 change in how pre-trial evidence is exchanged, saying in a March 16 ruling that was made public Tuesday that there should be a “presumption of openness” in favor of disclosing records.
The Nassau police commissioner, district attorney and county sued Engel late last year in what’s known as an Article 78 proceeding, arguing that more than 140 pending DWI cases and future cases could be dismissed if a higher court didn’t intervene.
Engel wouldn’t let the cases proceed to trial without the full disciplinary records disclosure, and the county said that the cases were at risk of dismissal because a speedy-trial law generally gives prosecutors 90 days to be ready for misdemeanor trials.
Engel had ruled state legislative reforms that also included the repeal of Civil Rights Law 50-a, which allowed police agencies to block the release of disciplinary records, meant that all such records for police had to be disclosed to defendants awaiting trial.
Garden City attorney Donna Aldea, whose law firm represented Engel, said Wednesday that Mahon’s decision reinforced “the independence of the judiciary.” She also said the ruling will allow defendants to get access to discovery materials that the State Legislature has deemed important.
“The whole point of enacting these statutes was to level the playing field a little bit and to make sure that defendants and defense attorneys have access to information that will ensure that the trials are fair. And I think that Judge Mahon’s decision in this case recognized that the prosecution’s position here and the Police Commissioner’s position here was not in line with the intent of the legislature,” she added.
Chris Boyle, a spokesman for Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, told Newsday on Wednesday that “the recent ruling is currently under review.”
Nassau Legal Aid Society Attorney-in-Chief N. Scott Banks, whose agency represents one of the DWI defendants involved in the Engel litigation, applauded Mahon’s decision Wednesday. But he said the wider legal debate related to the disclosure of police disciplinary records under tenets of legislative reform wouldn’t end with the ruling.
Banks pointed out a state appellate court is considering related litigation out of Suffolk County.
In the Engel case, police and prosecutors had sought a ruling that they didn’t have to produce the full disciplinary records of police witnesses if the documents were unrelated to the pending criminal matter, or if the records related to misconduct allegations where an officer was exonerated or a complaint resulted in an “unfounded” or “undetermined” outcome.
The case also exposed friction between police and prosecutors, with the district attorney’s office saying in court paperwork that prosecutors “made blanket requests of police partners for the records, which have been opposed.”
Police have said there are disclosure exemptions under the Freedom of Information Law that remain unchanged by 50-a's repeal.
A county attorney had argued during a January hearing in the Article 78 case that prosecutors couldn’t proceed with cases in Engel’s courtroom “because of the blanket positions he’s taken,” and added that “what he expects is not within his authority to order.”
Article 78 litigation asks a judge to review a decision of a state official that is alleged to be unlawful. But Mahon found Engel had “complied with the statutory obligations” in the new discovery law.
“As such, there is no basis for the Petitioners’ requested relief," Mahon wrote.