National News

Court Warns City Against Misuse Of Warrants for Material Witnesses

Posted June 21, 2018 8:47 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — For many years, civil liberties lawyers have accused the police and prosecutors in New York of misusing what are known as material witness warrants, which allow the authorities to arrest people with knowledge of a crime and force them to testify in court.

Although the warrants are supposed to be used to bring unwilling witnesses before a judge to compel their testimony, law enforcement officials have been found on several occasions to have used them to detain people for long periods without seeing a judge, pressuring them to give statements. This practice has led to wrongful convictions, civil liberties groups say.

But on Wednesday, a federal appeals court in New York sent a warning to the criminal justice system, ruling for the first time that the misuse of material witness warrants was unconstitutional. In its ruling, the court said that mishandling the warrants was such an obvious violation of the law that officers and prosecutors who abuse them can be sued, even though they typically have broad protection against lawsuits.

Unlike search or arrest warrants, which are generally issued to people under investigation or accused of crimes, material witness warrants are usually handed out to those who are merely in possession of information the authorities want. And in its ruling, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York said that the rights of witnesses like these need to be protected and that law enforcement cannot “detain and interrogate” them “for hours on end outside court supervision.”

The court’s decision came in the case of Alexina Simon, a hotel housekeeper who was arrested on a material witness warrant after she became mistakenly entangled in the fraud investigation of a Queens police officer. In January 2008, the officer, Shantell McKinnies, came under suspicion of falsely reporting that her car had been stolen. The police and prosecutors from the Queens district attorney’s office believed that Simon was McKinnies’ friend and wanted to talk to her about the missing car.

When the police tried to reach Simon on the phone, she — or more accurately, court papers say, somebody who answered to her name — told them that she had been with McKinnies on the night the car was stolen, but then started crying and hung up. The police then tried to question Simon at her home, but were met, the papers said, by “an uncooperative person.”

In August, two investigators from the district attorney’s office took Simon into custody on a material witness warrant, threatening to put her in handcuffs in front of her colleagues at the hotel in Manhattan where she worked. Shortly after the arrest, however, they realized they had made a mistake: It was not Simon who knew the officer; it was her daughter, Alexandra, who lived at the same address.

Their error notwithstanding, and even though the warrant in their hands required Simon to appear before a judge, the investigators took her to the district attorney’s office where, she maintains, she was questioned against her will for 18 hours over the course of two days. Within a year, Simon sued her interrogators, saying they had violated her constitutional rights by “arresting, threatening, harassing and detaining” her without justification.

In their defense, the investigators and the prosecutor on the case contended Simon had answered their questions voluntarily and was kept in custody for far less time than she claimed. Over the next eight years, a federal judge in Brooklyn dismissed Simon’s lawsuit twice, first ruling that the defendants were legally immune to her accusations and later finding her detention was “an honest, understandable mistake.”

The judge, Eric N. Vitaliano, also said that in holding Simon “for a reasonable period of time,” the investigators and the prosecutor had only followed “routine procedures that have grown up around the execution of material witness warrants.”

That statement outraged groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which last year filed a brief in support of Simon. The brief said that in several cases reaching back to the early 1990s, the authorities in New York had improperly used the warrants to squeeze false testimony out of witnesses. In some of those cases, the brief maintained, the pressured witnesses helped send people to prison for crimes that it was later determined they did not commit.

In the 2nd Circuit’s ruling on Wednesday — the second time it had considered the case — the three-judge panel sided with the legal groups and once again swept aside Vitaliano’s claims, ordering that Simon’s suit be reinstated. The court asserted that what Vitaliano had called a mistake was a violation of Simon’s rights and added that the investigators and the prosecutor could be sued for having committed it.

“The court was clearly saying that you can’t arrest someone on a material witness warrant and hold them just to pressure them for information,” said Cody Wofsy, a staff attorney for the ACLU who argued the case before the appeals court. “This is an important signpost in limiting the use of these warrants.”

A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said, “We dispute the facts of the case and will proceed accordingly.”