What Would a Change to New York’s 50-a Law Mean?

Now that New York’s Senate is under the control of Democrats, the state’s controversial 50-a law is being looked at with an eye towards revision or repeal. This could mean sweeping changes surrounding misconduct involving the police and other corrections personnel.

What is 50-a?

In the New York Civil Rights Law, section 50-a declares that police officer, firefighter, and corrections officer “personnel records” are confidential and not subject to inspection or review unless the officer gives their permission. Though it was passed to protect personal information of officers who testified in court and prevent harassment by defense attorneys. State courts have created precedent permitting police to conceal almost all records from the public and allowing officers to escape transparency standards other public officials must obey.

Initially, the law only protected off-duty misconduct records such as illegal activities performed off the clock. However, appellate court decisions have expanded the protections of 50-a to include records of police misconduct on duty, such as assaulting civilians while conducting a routine traffic stop or search.

Why Is the Law Being Reviewed?

Though the law has been on the books since the 1970s, the law began receiving more public scrutiny since 2014, when notorious and highly publicized incidents of police violence brought national attention to criminal justice reform. The New York Police Department has cited 50-a numerous times when it has refused to disclose the history of Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s disciplinary actions– the officer responsible for choking Eric Garner to death in Staten Island. His internal NYPD trial is ongoing, but a leaked record of his history of complaints revealed he was the subject of several substantiated complaints for abusive stops and searches of individuals.

What Proposals Are Being Considered?

Though the options of 50-a’s reform or repeal are on the table, the New York City Council is debating a set of bills meant to curtail the city’s broad interpretation of the 50-a law. These bills would require:

  • The NYPD provide prosecutors access to disciplinary records within 24 hours of a request
  • District Attorneys offices provide a breakdown of the number of cases they prosecute and decline to prosecute
  • The NYPD make public their departmental guidelines for discipline, the number of officers disciplined annually, and information on individual cases of misconduct. Currently the Council may obtain information on those cases but cannot public individual proceeding details
  • Reports from the NYPD on how each precinct handles walk-in misconduct complaints
  • Data from the NYPD on second-degree assault, resisting arrest, and obstructing governmental administration arrests

Currently, however, only state legislators can dismantle or reform the 50-a exemptions. The police union, however, has been donating heavily to state politicians in an effort to prevent changes to or a repeal of the law. The legislature has until June 19 to figure out details on the bill before the legislative session ends.

New York Criminal Defense Lawyer

Everyone wants to believe the police will do their duty to protect and serve, but when they fall short of that standard it’s important you have an experienced New York criminal defense attorney by your side to fight for your rights. Contact the experienced team at MOWK Law to have your questions answered and learn about your options today.