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March 19, 2019 Articles

Civil Rights Violations in Criminal Cases: A Meaningful Remedy?

There should be some consequence for outrageous misconduct that has been exposed.

By David Schoen

It is unlikely that there is a criminal-defense lawyer practicing in America who, in the course of defending a client at trial, has not encountered an overzealous prosecutor or law-enforcement officer who, perhaps out of a belief that the end justifies the means, has either withheld exculpatory evidence from a defendant, fabricated evidence against the defendant, or both. The recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Bellamy v. City of New York, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 2914 (2d Cir., Jan. 29, 2019) perfectly illustrates the use and importance of causes of action and remedies provided by civil-rights jurisprudence when these transgressions of the criminal defendant’s fundamental constitutional rights occur.

The case arises from the overturned conviction of Kareem Bellamy for the 1994 murder of James Abbott in Queens, New York—a case that received a great deal of media attention in and around New York at the time. Bellamy went to trial in Queens in 1995 and was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. He professed his innocence at all times and protested that he was the victim of fabricated testimony and an improper summation. Bellamy appealed the conviction and sought post-conviction relief when his appeal failed, all the time making these same claims. He lost in every state and federal forum. 

Then, in 2007, 12 years after his conviction, Bellamy filed a motion in the state court where he was convicted, seeking to vacate his conviction based on newly discovered evidence that supported his theory that the police had fabricated the evidence against him. Bellamy also learned that someone else had earlier confessed to the murder for which he was convicted. Bellamy’s motion was granted, his conviction was vacated, and he was released from prison.

Bellamy filed a civil action in the Eastern District of New York against the police officers involved in his case along with the City of New York. Bellamy claimed that through their misconduct, the officers had denied his Fourteenth Amendment due-process right and his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. Bellamy specifically claimed that his constitutional rights were violated by (1) the use of fabricated evidence against him, and (2) the concealment of material exculpatory evidence, and he also asserted claims for municipal liability against the City of New York, based upon what he alleged to be a policy that allowed the officers to withhold information about benefits paid to a government witness and permitted the prosecutor to have an improper summation in the case based upon a systemic failure to properly train or supervise prosecutors. The district court dismissed Bellamy’s claims on summary judgment and he appealed.

In a strong and comprehensive opinion, the Second Circuit reversed, finding that at least some of Bellamy’s claims against the officers for fabricating evidence against him and for concealing material exculpatory evidence must be permitted to go forward. But the most telling aspect of the decision, with potentially far-reaching effects, was the court’s conclusion that to the extent Bellamy made claims that the officers did not fully inform the prosecution of the array of benefits given to a cooperating witness and that the prosecutor’s summation was improper and that both examples of material misconduct were a function of policy within the Queens District Attorney’s Office, the City of New York would be deemed to be the final policymaker in these areas and could be held liable, if the claims were proven, under a Monell theory of liability for the actions of the officers and the prosecutors.

The court’s decision on municipal liability for the alleged systemic nature of the misconduct that attended the criminal proceedings is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the case. Whether a decision like this actually works as a deterrent against a repeat in future cases is an open question; but the case at least reflects an effort at recognizing that there should be some consequence for outrageous misconduct that has been exposed.

David Schoen is with The Law Office of David Schoen in Montgomery, Alabama.

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