MANHATTAN (CN) — Fighting an "inescapable conflict of interest," lawyers for two Black Lives Matter protesters sued to stop New York City Police Department from sending in-house prosecutors to try their clients.
"They have an edge here," their attorney Martin Stoler said in a phone interview. "They have an ax to grind."
Black Lives Matter protesters Arminta Jeffryes and Cristina Winsor, described in court papers as a "committed activist," got added to the dockets of the NYPD's prosecutors on accusations of mundane violations.
Police say that Jeffryes crossed against a steady "Don't Walk" sign, and that Winsor walked in the roadway when a sidewalk was available.
Their attorneys note that the Manhattan District Attorney's office typically does not send prosecutors for such minor offenses, but that law enforcement took a more hands-on — and troubling — approach for these women's cases.
This past February, District Attorney Cyrus Vance's general counsel Benjamin Rosenberg wrote a so-called "memorandum of understanding" formally delegating violations for the summons part in criminal court and appellate term to the NYPD.
Stoler, the women's attorney, said he noticed a pattern of when the NYPD deploys its legal team.
"The NYPD legal has chosen to come in what appears to be only during protest, during First Amendment activity," he said.
Overruling objections by the activists' lawyers, Manhattan Judge Guy Mitchell upheld the legal theories of the NYPD and district attorney against both women on Sept. 19.
Mitchell's rulings and the district attorney's memo are both attached as court exhibits to Thursday's lawsuit.
The New York Daily News quoted an NYPD deputy commissioner of legal matters as describing the new policy as an attempt to "put some teeth into issuing these summons."
But the women's lawyers claim that the department changed its policy to reduce its liabilities when rights of protesters are violated.
"The [NYPD's] Legal Bureau seeks to act as prosecutor in these and other summons cases, not to represent the interests of the People of the State of New York, but to protect police officers against future civil litigation for false arrest and Section 1983 federal civil rights violations," the 13-page petition states.
A New York City Law Department spokesman said: "We will review the complaint."
The next court date for Jeffryes and Winsor is scheduled for Monday.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.