NYC Can’t Stall Suit Over Trans Woman’s Death at Rikers

Activists with the group No New Jails rally in the park on Sept. 5 across from City Hall ahead of a land-use hearing on a proposal to close Rikers and replace it with four new borough jails. (Photo by AMANDA OTTAWAY/Courthouse News Service)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Before a nearly full courtroom Friday, a federal magistrate refused to pause a lawsuit filed by the mother of a transgender woman who died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island last summer. 

The city had asked to delay the case twice in October, saying it did not want to interfere with the ongoing investigations into Layleen Polanco’s death by the Bronx District Attorney’s Office and the Department of Corrections. 

U.S. Magistrate Judge Sanket Bulsara wasn’t buying it. 

The city “relied on inapposite authority, misapplied the state of the law, and attempted to invoke privileges in an improper manner,” Bulsara said in Brooklyn today, calling any potential interference during the discovery process with a state investigation totally speculative.

“There are parallel investigations going on all the time,” Bulsara said, going on to emphasize that it was the defendants, not Polanco, who were the subject of the investigations. 

Relatives of Polanco said she had epilepsy and schizophrenia before she died at age 27, locked up because she had not been able to pay $500 bail on misdemeanor charges. In New York City, her death has become a rallying cry for criminal justice reform, particularly for black trans women. 

The District Attorney’s Office has not issued a report or charged anyone yet, despite having reportedly completed the interviewing and document collection phases of its case.

In Oct. 16 court papers, David Shanies, attorney for the Polanco family, objected to the request for a stay. 

“It would be … perverse if the city were permitted to block a civil action by declaring that its own ‘investigation’ precludes litigation against it,” he wrote. 

He also called the city’s claim baseless.

“The Bronx District Attorney’s Office has no issue with this civil lawsuit and is not seeking a stay,” Shanies wrote in a filing this week. “The city presents no declaration or other competent evidence to support the assertion that this lawsuit might unduly prejudice anyone.”

Polanco’s mother, Arecelis Polanco, appeared in court Friday with her lawyers in turquoise-rimmed glasses and a black blazer. In Spanish after the proceedings, she said her faith in the U.S. justice system had essentially come full circle. When she first came to the country, she had confidence in the law, but she said the death of her child in jail shattered that trust. She said Layleen gave her “the greatest joy in this world.”

“This judge on this case gave me faith back,” Arecelis Polanco said, her remarks translated by Layleen Polanco’s sister Melania Brown. “It gave me faith that there’s justice in America.” 

The courtroom was nearly full as activists and friends showed up in solidarity with the Polanco family. Public advocate Jumaane Williams, the incumbent in the special general election that ends Nov. 5, was also in attendance.

“I want to make sure this case doesn’t just disappear,” Williams said in the hallway outside the courtroom after the proceeding.

The ideal outcome of the case, Williams said, is accountability for what happened, and changes to the system. 

“I’m not clear that this couldn’t happen again,” he said. “The entire city should be concerned.” 

According to reporting by The City, a nonprofit news source in New York, the city tends to use stonewalling as a tactic when it is sued in civil court.

Philip Frank represented the city in court Friday.

Defendants also include officers, a Corrections Department official, and a doctor. The plaintiffs said they anticipated adding one or two other defendants. 

“I’m thinking specifically of the officers who were in the housing unit where Layleen died,” Shanies said.

Kimberly Mckenzie, director of outreach and community engagement at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, said she was pleased with Friday’s proceedings. The day was about supporting Layleen Polanco and her family, she explained. 

“Our lives matter,” Mckenzie said, “black trans women. This should never happen at the hands of our city.” 

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