MANHATTAN (CN) - Demonstrating "gross negligence," New York City destroyed evidence in a class action concerning quotas that entangled hundreds of thousands of black citizens, a federal judge ruled.
If the case goes to trial, class counsel can now tell the jury that the missing evidence would have been helpful to their case.
A 24-page opinion U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet filed late on Tuesday details the problems that have plagued the case ever since its filing roughly six years ago.
East Harlem resident Sharif Stinson brought the lawsuit in 2010, seeking to represent a class of potentially hundreds of thousands of black New Yorkers accusing the New York City Police Department of issuing 850,000 phony summonses in service of an unconstitutional quota scheme.
New York City waited three years to begin preserving evidence.
Sweet on Tuesday called this delay "the first and most egregious instance of gross negligence."
During the discovery process, Stinson's lawyers noticed what they called a "stunning pattern" of missing evidence. The court formally found that police "shredded" hard copies of records from CompStat meetings and "destroyed" officer activity reports.
CompStat meetings involve senior police brass reviewing data to make policy decisions, and use monthly activity reports to judge the individual-officer performances.
Sweet also slammed the city for not preserving text messages and failing to produce responsive documents, including ex-NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly's emails.
Late last year, Kelly insisted in a sworn declaration that it was "never my practice" to use email or text messages to discuss any "substantive communication."
His former chief of department, Joseph Esposito, signed a similar statement claiming "it was never my practice to use email or text messaging to communicate about topics like summonses, enforcement activity, performance goals."
At the time, Stinson's lawyer Elinor Sutton from the firm Quinn Emanuel called these statements "demonstrably false," and the city indignantly replied in a brief that "Commissioner Kelly did not commit perjury."
But Sweet found that the officials' alleged distaste for email was "contradicted by emails that the plaintiffs have obtained through other means."
"For instance, the plaintiffs attached a copy of a Sept. 27, 2010, email from Commissioner Kelly's BlackBerry in which he approves the transfer of a police officer from a precinct in Queens to one in the Bronx, based in part on her having told two officers to stop writing summonses," the opinion states.
Still, Sweet found that any allegation of perjury would be "unsupported," and there was "no basis to conclude the city acted in bad faith."
"The city's conduct shows a broad failure to take its preservation obligations seriously rather than any deliberate attempt to lie or mislead," Sweet added.
As a result, the court found the plaintiffs entitled to an "inference that helpful evidence may have been lost, not relief from their obligation to prove their case."
A New York City Law Department spokesman emphasized this finding in a statement.
"While the court suggests that there may have been systemic failures in preserving electronic and other communications, Judge Sweet categorically dismisses any suggestion that either former Commissioner Kelly or former Chief Esposito testified falsely as to the matters in question," the spokesman said.
In a phone interview, Stinson's attorney Sutton applauded the "severe consequences" the city will face.
"Plaintiffs are pleased to see that the federal court has ensured that the defendants will face severe consequences for failing to take their legal obligations seriously, especially in light of the fact that this case concerns the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of individuals," Sutton said. "Plaintiffs hope that the court's decision will help ensure that relevant evidence is no longer destroyed in future litigations concerning the NYPD."
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