As the mother of slain cyclist Mathieu Lefevre sat stoically in the second row of the gallery, lawyers for the New York Police Department tried to explain to a judge why it has taken more than five months to comply with her Freedom of Information request information about how he died.
Questioned by Supreme Court Judge Peter Moulton, the Lefevre family’s lawyer, Steve Vaccaro, laid out the history of the case. For weeks after Lefevre’s death, the NYPD refused to provide the family with any information about its investigation into Lefevre’s death — in fact, it was more communicative with the truck driver who killed Lefevre, and with the press, who were told by officers soon after the crash that there was no criminality in Lefevre’s death.
Vacarro argued that the police can’t tell the Lefevres they can’t have any information because of an ongoing investigation if they’re also telling the press the accident wasn’t a crime on the part of the driver.
Here Judge Moulton stopped Vaccaro: “I don’t want to be cynical about this,” he said. “but isn’t that what government does, spin the press?”
Vaccaro answered that one of the reasons for the Freedom of Information Law, under which the Lefevres requested the information on November 1, is to provide a corrective for the government’s ability to spin, lie, and sweep inconvenient truths under the rug.
On November 1, impatient with the NYPD’s silence, the Lefevres had Vaccaro file a Freedom of Information request on their behalf. After waiting the maximum time allowed, the NYPD responded that it wouldn’t be turning over any information, because the investigation was ongoing, and any disclosure could interfere. The Lefevres appealed, and when, after the allotted ten days and several more had passed without anything from the NYPD, they filed papers for a lawsuit.
On January 20, the police finally did release some documents and videos, but the release was incomplete. In fact, the NYPD was still turning over information Wednesday evening, the day before yesterday’s court hearing, when they released six hours of recordings of police at the scene of the accident talking with each other and with dispatchers. Katie Flaherty-Linde, the lawyer representing the city in this case, said this wasn’t new information — she had provided transcripts of the conversation. But Vaccaro said the audio files contained relevant information not contained in any transcripts he’d received.
After discussing the history of the case and the relevant legal issues with both Vaccaro and Katie Flaherty-Linde, the lawyer representing the NYPD, Judge Moulton concluded by asking Flaherty LInde about how providing copies of documents for a grieving family could interfere with an investigation.
“I have one question for you, and it’s crucial,” Judge Moulton said. “What was the interference?”
Flaherty-Linde answered that providing the requested information could have interfered with the investigation by compromising the investigating officers to keep their documents in one place and “maintain consistency.”
That answer didn’t impress Brad Connover, the attorney representing City Councilor Brad Lander and Transportation Alternatives, who filed an amicus brief in this case.
“I did not hear any articulated cognizable argument about interference,” Connover told the judge.
Connover also argued that this case is about more than just a single instance disorganized police department dragging its feet. It’s a pattern. Transportation Alternatives, the cycling advocacy organization, filed Freedom of Information requests itself last August trying to get information about what happened in six different bike fatalities. So far, the NYPD hasn’t provided any of the requested information.
“That’s what happens when we don’t come to court,” Connover said.
With oral arguments concluded, both sides will now likely have to wait weeks to receive Judge Moulton’s ruling.
As the courtroom emptied out yesterday, lawyers for the police declined to speak to the press. But Erika Lefevre, who had flown in from her home in Canada for the fifth time to attend the hearing, was another story.
“If there is some way that my speaking out will prevent another victim of vehicular crime, some way that I can prevent another person from being severely injured or killed, it’s worth it.” she said. “What happened to us and to my son should not happen.”