Public Interest Careers – Victims of Police Abuse
McGregor Smyth ’99
The Bronx Defenders
McGregor Smyth founded the Civil Action Practice at The Bronx Defenders more than a decade ago, as a Skadden Fellow. Today, the Civil Action Practice provides comprehensive legal representation to thousands of clients on every type of legal problem, including immigration, housing, employment, public benefits, and civil rights. It is an integral part of The Bronx Defenders’ award-winning holistic model, which brings together interdisciplinary work groups combining criminal defense and civil lawyers, social workers, investigators, and family court advocates to address not just the immediate criminal or family court case, but also the host of issues that drive individuals into the system. McGregor also represents two certified classes in federal court of more than 20,000 people falsely arrested by the NYPD.
In 2005, McGregor established and now directs Reentry Net, the first support network and information clearinghouse on reentry and the full range of collateral consequences of criminal proceedings. As a Liman Fellow at Bronx Defenders, McGregor developed what became Reentry Net as a resource center for criminal defense attorneys and other advocates in New York State to raise awareness about “invisible punishments” such as eviction, loss of government benefits or healthcare, and loss of employment, that come with a criminal conviction. Here, Smyth tells a story that is representative of his 13-year fight for justice for his clients in the South Bronx—the poorest congressional district in the country:
“I first met Eddie during my Liman fellowship year at The Bronx Defenders,” writes Smyth. “Eddie had been resigned to his serial arrests for pursuing his only livelihood, panhandling, but now he was angry. He wanted it to stop, once and for all. I spoke to the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, but they insisted, even in court papers, on their right to prosecute—despite a clear decision from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that the statute in question, which criminalized ‘loitering for the purpose of begging,’ was unconstitutional. Clearly this problem went beyond Eddie. I dug further and discovered court records of hundreds of others who had been illegally arrested and prosecuted for violating this void statute. The solution had to be comprehensive. I recruited a prominent civil rights law firm, Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, as co-counsel, and together we filed a federal class action.
“We quickly uncovered an even larger problem. Three separate courts over the last 30 years have struck down loitering laws because they violate New Yorkers’ basic constitutional rights. In 1983, the state’s highest court struck down the first statute in the context of unconstitutional targeting of consensual sex between gay men. In the next three years alone, NYPD illegally arrested more than 3,000 people under the void statute. They simply continued without pause. Police continued to arrest, DAs continued to prosecute, and courts continued to convict innocent citizens for completely legal activity. Thirty years later, the courts have struck down two more loitering statutes, and the NYPD has illegally arrested or charged more than 20,000 people. Thousands of police officers in nearly every precinct and command participated.
“It took eight years of litigation, multiple court orders, and finally a federal court holding New York City in contempt to make them stop. In this case, we finally built a structure both for meaningful relief for the victims of these police abuses and for stopping these particular practices once and for all. After 30 years of waiting, our clients will share in a $15 million settlement, their records will be sealed, and a specific set of court-ordered procedures will ensure that NYPD and the Dictrict Attorneys’ Offices follow the law.”
Over the past twelve years, Smyth has represented hundreds of clients on cases ranging from administrative appeals of a denial of public benefits, to immigration removal proceedings, to drug eviction trials, to federal civil rights actions. He has also trained thousands of lawyers on effective advocacy strategies and consulted with other legal organizations about restructuring their services. “The Liman Fellowship and the continued support of the Liman Program formed an integral part of this work,” says Smyth. “It supported me during a critical stage of development in my career and offers a growing network of smart and passionate public interest advocates.”
“What drove Eddie’s case, like all the others, was working with the client to craft creative solutions,” continued Smyth. “This approach has led me to simple settlements according to clients’ wishes, jury trials, meetings with agency commissioners to highlight a wrong, presentations to legislators, and impact litigation. The individual clients and their experiences have driven my fight for structural change, both in the provision of services and the crafting of policy.”
For more information about fellowship opportunities, visit www.law.yale.edu/studentlife/ylspublicinterestfellowships.htm.