SPECIAL LITIGATION UNIT
The NYCDS Special Litigation Unit engages in appellate, civil, and law reform litigation as well as legislative advocacy on systemic issues affecting the criminal justice system and the constitutional rights of criminal defendants.
Internally, the unit provides trial attorneys with advice, training, and litigation support on complex legal issues with a focus on evolving legislative and judicial developments in the law.
The unit also operates and edits the online publication For the Defense, which curates and contributes legal scholarship on areas of interest to the indigent defense community.
JUVENILE DEFENSE UNIT
“For these are all our children.
We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.”
The Juvenile Defense Unit represents children under 16 years of age being prosecuted as adults in Manhattan Supreme Court. Research shows that juvenile offenders who experience incarceration are more likely to later commit offenses as adults than those who don’t. Children in penal custody experience trauma, violence, and painful disengagement from their family and community. Incarceration at this crucial stage of development will likely exacerbate any existing mental health impairments while raising the risks of suicide and sexual abuse.
Because juveniles differ from adults in many relevant ways, most notably maturity and decision-making, the defense of juveniles in adult court is necessarily complex and specialized. Responsible juvenile defense requires a holistic and informed approach to overcome the unique legal and social challenges facing this highly vulnerable client population.
To meet this responsibility, attorneys and staff in the unit are well-versed in the science of adolescent neurology and psychology and in systemic developments related to the prosecution of juveniles. They use that specialized understanding to help their clients navigate the complexities of the criminal justice system while vigorously defending their constitutional due process rights. This expertise extends, when necessary, to the presentation of mitigation and to the securing of alternatives to incarceration.
In every case, from inception to resolution—whether by dismissal, trial, or negotiated plea—the Juvenile Defense Unit is steadfastly committed to protecting and advocating for these critical members of our society.
“With only a small degree of hyperbole, the immigration laws have been termed ‘second only to the Internal Revenue Code in complexity.’ A lawyer is often the only person who could thread the labyrinth.”
– Elizabeth Hull, Without Justice for All: The Constitutional Rights of Aliens
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010), that criminal defense attorneys have a Constitutional duty to advise clients about the potential immigration consequences of a criminal conviction. To best serve New York’s large immigrant community, the NYCDS Immigration Unit is comprised of two full-time immigration attorneys specializing in the intersection between criminal and immigration law. Our primary duty is to provide Padilla advice to NYCDS clients and defense attorneys. To do this, we customarily interview clients regarding their immigration history, prior criminal justice contact, and family ties. This allows us to determine what effect the current criminal case could have on a client’s immigration status, or ability to obtain a different immigration status in the future, and then share that information with the client. When appropriate, we advocate directly with the District Attorney’s office and attempt to negotiate an outcome that will cause the least amount of harm to an individual’s immigration status.
Where possible, and when resources are available, we also assist clients with immigration applications and interviews, immigration court appearances, supply letters for clients who will be travelling internationally, and inform clients of their legal rights with respect to Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) through community outreach.
Anyone who is not a citizen of the United States must take seriously any interaction with the criminal justice system. Even seemingly minor crimes or non-criminal offenses can potentially have a devastating effect on non-citizens: an immigration application being denied, denial of reentry to the United States, or the initiation of deportation proceedings. The NYCDS Immigration Unit is committed to providing thorough, accurate, and confidential legal counsel to all of our non-citizen clients.
FORENSIC SOCIAL WORK UNIT
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope… and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
– Robert F. Kennedy
The causes and collateral consequences of criminal justice involvement frequently go beyond the legal realm. NYCDS has an exemplary team of forensic social workers who advocate for our clients from a socio-ecological perspective and who assist them as they navigate complex legal and social service systems. Our social workers also support our clients as they address substance abuse, mental illness, family and community upheaval, and financial and housing hardships by collaborating with agencies throughout New York. Strong forensic social work is a critical component of any indigent defense office. The exceptional unit at NYCDS is an invaluable asset in achieving the best possible outcomes for our clients.
“Condemnation without investigation is the height of ignorance.”
— Albert Einstein
The duty to investigate is central to the effective representation of those charged with crimes. NYCDS is fortunate to employ many experienced and highly-motivated investigators. These professionals work closely with our attorneys to vigorously and skillfully pursue all the information relevant to the client’s case. Their work ensures that every client NYCDS represents receives an impassioned defense where the prosecution’s evidence is scrutinized at the highest level.
DNA & FORENSICS UNIT
The DNA & Forensics Unit assists our attorneys with the difficult and complex issues surrounding the use of forensic evidence in criminal cases.
Members of this unit attend and conduct specialized trainings and collaborate with legal scholars, scientists, and others in the field and in the defense bar to stay current in the rapidly evolving landscape of DNA and forensic science litigation.
The unit also participates in advocacy efforts concerning the increasing intersection between this branch of science and the criminal justice system. The focus there is ensuring that the voices of our client communities are heard in these public discussions and in the resulting shaping of policy.
MENTAL HEALTH SPECIALIST
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
— Mahatma Gandhi
Our Mental Health Specialist is a highly-experienced attorney serving the needs of our clients who have mental health or cognitive issues. This attorney works to safeguard the due process and constitutional rights of this most vulnerable population while working closely with our Forensic Social Work Unit to ensure that the client’s mental health and cognitive needs are met through social services.
Clients in this population tend to have higher rates of victimization as well as greater levels of recidivism if their underlying issues remain untreated. The Mental Health Specialist works to identify clients in need and advocates for their community-based treatment as an alternative to incarceration. For eligible clients, this may include advocating for diversion to the Mental Health Court then representing them there from initial psychosocial evaluation through successful graduation. The specialist also attends forensic examinations ordered pursuant to Criminal Procedure Law §730 to ensure that the rights of those clients are protected and to assist in the critical determination of competency.
Internally, the specialist assists staff attorneys in assessing a client’s specific mental health needs, provides them with training and expertise, and consults on cases with psychiatric defenses, including coordinating the use of expert witnesses where appropriate.
Lastly, the attorney is part of the NYC Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice Advisory Workgroup. This interdisciplinary group is composed of Deputy Commissioners of the NYPD and NYC Department of Health, representatives from other City defender organizations, as well as civil liberties organizations and social service providers who collaborate in assessing and formulating policy affecting those with mental health, cognitive, and substance-abuse issues.
SORA LITIGATION SPECIALIST
Mandatory registration under New York State’s Sex Offender Registry Act is a severe consequence than can follow a conviction for certain sex-related offenses. Our SORA Litigation Specialist seeks to mitigate the impact of this life-changing collateral consequence by vigorously advocating for the rights of the potential registrant. This advocacy is accomplished through working closely not just with clients and attorneys of record but also with other experts in the relevant fields. This ensures the submission of persuasive written motions and of superior litigation at the hearings conducted pursuant to the statute.
VETERAN COURT SPECIALIST
Veterans with substance abuse and mental health issues are at significant risk of arrest because their service-related trauma can lead to criminal conduct. As a result, veterans with unrecognized and unaddressed issues after discharge were getting lost in the criminal justice system. The Veterans Court Specialist position was created to advocate for these uniquely vulnerable clients and ensure that their service and sacrifice are not forgotten.
The New York State Unified Court System opened Manhattan Veterans Treatment Court (MVTC) in April of 2016. Participation in MVTC is available for veterans charged with felony offenses who struggle with substance abuse or mental health issues. MVTC follows the drug court model, but treatment addresses the specific needs of the men and women who have served our country and includes a mentorship program with other veterans.
The Veterans Court Specialist’s primary responsibility is to identify clients who have served in the military and advocate for their participation in MVTC. Once a client is accepted into MVTC, the Veterans Court Specialist continues to vigorously represent the veteran throughout to the proceedings to promote successful completion of the program.
Unfortunately, not all veterans are not eligible to participate in MVTC. The Veterans Court Specialist works to seek alternative resolutions for the ineligible clients by highlighting their military service. This is often done in conjunction with the Forensic Social Work Unit, which often connects clients with services available specifically for veterans.
The Veterans Court Specialist also works to stay current on available resources and relevant issues for veteran clients through meetings and trainings with the New York City Department of Veterans Services, New York State Unified Court System, New York State Defenders Association Veterans Defense Program, and the New York County District Attorney’s Office.