Peruse the newly filed civil cases in any of the five boroughs’ state supreme courthouses and you’ll see, each day, dozens of lawsuits filed against the city’s police department. The allegations generally range from wrongful arrest to unjust detention to assault. Most of the cases begin by describing an unconstitutional application of the city’s stop and frisk policy.
For the past 12 years, those cases fell on the desk of Michael Cardozo, the corporation counsel appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to provide the city’s legal representation. And as former city attorney Joel Berger told the New York Times, “Under Cardozo, the policy has been to fight every police misconduct case tooth and nail.”
So there is, at the very least, symbolic value in Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s choice for Cardozo’s replacement: Zachary Carter, who made his name, in large part, by prosecuting one of the most high profile police misconduct cases in New York City history.
In 1997, Carter, who served as the U.S. Attorney for Eastern District of New York from 1993 to 1999, brought federal charges against the NYPD officers accused of assaulting and torturing Abner Louima in the bathroom of Brooklyn’s 70th precinct station house.
During the trial, officer Justin Volpe confessed to sodomizing Louima with his nightstick and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Another officer, Charles Schwarz, got a 15 year sentenced that was later dropped to five years. The police department settled with Louima, who had not been charged of any crime, for $8.7 million. (Ken Thompson, recently elected as Brooklyn’s new District Attorney, also represented Louima in that case.)
Now Carter is on the other side of the table, responsible for defending cases that stemmed from the city’s over-aggressive law enforcement pursuits. In a press conference on Sunday, de Blasio explained that Carter’s appointment signals a significant policy shift in the city’s litigation strategy, specifically in two of the city’s most heated on-going court battles.
“We will drop the appeal on the stop and frisk case because we think the judge was right about the reforms we need to make,” de Blasio said. “We will settle the Central Park five case because a huge injustice was done.”
The five Hispanic and black men, who as teenagers were convicted then later exonerated of raping a Central Park jogger in 1989, sued the city for $250 million, but the case has dragged on for more than 10 years.
De Blasio said that through Carter his administration will promote a “progressive, activist corporation counsel’s office.”
“Zachary Carter personifies the forward movement of fairness and equality in the criminal justice system,” Al Sharpton said at the presser, calling Carter’s appointment “an unprecedented and huge step for progress.”
Carter, who was the first African American to lead the Easter District’s U.S. attorney’s office, oversaw a few other high profile convictions: the suspects who assaulted Yankel Rosenbaum during the Crown Heights riots in 1991; Genovese crime family boss Vinnie Gigante for racketeering; and “Wolf of Wall Street” Jordan Belfort for securities fraud and money laundering.
Following his time as a federal prosecutor, Carter became a partner at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney, where he served as co-chair of the office’s white collar crime and civil fraud practice. Earlier this year, he co-authored an op-ed advocating for an increase in funding for public defenders.
“I’ve tried to use the law to level the playing field for those seeking equal access to justice and opportunity, free from the burdens of discrimination based on race, national origin, gender, sexual preference, or economic class,” Carter said at Sunday’s press conference. “We’ve failed as a society when we do not meet the needs of the least advantaged.”