MANHATTAN (CN) – In a rare move, a federal judge ordered New York City to crack open grand jury minutes for a man who says undercover officers lied to get him indicted on bogus drug charges.
According to court documents, NYPD Detectives Jeremiah Breen and other undercover officers arrested Rafael Blasini in East Harlem on Oct. 13, 2010, and Blasini spent two months in prison before he was able to post bail.
The charges were eventually dismissed for lack of evidence, Blasini says.
After filing a federal complaint against New York City, Detective Breen and unidentified officers in Manhattan last year, however, Blasini has struggled to build a case.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled Thursday that Blasini can start building his case by viewing grand jury minutes, which usually enjoy nearly impenetrable secrecy.
“Under New York Criminal Procedure Law § 190.25(4), grand jury testimony is secret and may not be disclosed without a court order,” Scheindlin wrote. “In order to obtain such an order, a movant must show ‘a compelling and particularized need for access.’ If such need exists, it must be balanced against the ‘venerable and important policy’ of grand jury secrecy.”
Two footnotes in that passage cite the 1998 case People v. Fetcho.
A lawyer for the city says that presumption has not changed in the last 14 years.
“It’s rare for a federal judge to order that state court grand jury minutes be unsealed, particularly where a state court had previously denied the same relief,” said Muriel Goode-Trufant, chief of the Special Federal Litigation Division for the New York City Law Department.
Even Scheindlin noted in her opinion that courts usually uphold that secrecy to prevent a defendant from fleeing, protect grand jurors who participate in the investigation, and allow witnesses to testify freely, among other reasons.
She noted, however, that Blasini’s case involves unique circumstances.
“The district attorney’s motion fails to recognize that in this case, Blasini needs the grand jury minutes in order to craft a proper pleading and obtain discovery,” Scheindlin wrote. “Although portions of the minutes were summarized by the court in his state proceeding, that summary does not permit Blasini to point to the specific portions of the testimony that he believes constituted perjury. Blasini’s request is particularized because he seeks the minutes relating to his indictment; he is not fishing for information from other grand jury matters. And his need is compelling because he alleges that what was said in the minutes constituted malicious perjury that led to his unlawful arrest and prosecution.” (Italics in original.)
Scheindlin allowed the names of the undercover officers to remain redacted, though Blasini could renew his request to expose their names at a later date.
Blasini’s attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.
Goode-Trufant, the city lawyer, said her office was reviewing the decision.
Late last year, Scheindlin authored an opinion giving the green light to a class-action lawsuit presenting the first significant legal challenge to the city’s stop-and-frisk policy, an allegedly discriminatory policy that the American Civil Liberties Union has monitored since 2002.
The NYCLU did not return calls to comment on how Scheindlin’s latest ruling might impact civil liberties.