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Prosecutors Can't Abuse Warrants to Question Witnesses

By William Vogeler, Esq. on June 25, 2018 6:57 AM

Alexina Simon didn't know why police wanted her for questioning, still she cooperated.

Eighteen hours later, they let her go because she didn't have any useful information. She sued for false arrest, but a trial judge dismissed because the police had a "witness warrant."

That's how they do things in New York. Not in Simon v. City of New York, said the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

"Witness Warrant"

According to local reports, "witness warrants" are commonly used in New York to detain and interrogate witnesses. The procedure requires prosecutors to present the witness to a judge.

In Simon, investigators used the warrant to bring the witness into a Queens precinct stationhouse. But they never took her to court.

That's not how the material witness statute works, the Second Circuit said. Police cannot reasonably believe they can detain a person for "hours on end outside court supervision," the judges said.

"A long line of cases holds that securing someone's presence at a police station using coercive tactics like those employed by the defendants here -- including entering Simon's home and telling her that her attendance is mandatory -- is constitutionally indistinguishable from a traditional arrest," the appeals panel said.

Defense to the Rescue

Criminal defense attorneys and civil liberties groups filed briefs supporting Simon in her civil complaint. They said New York prosecutors routinely use witness warrants unfairly.

"This is a practice that's been used pervasively, which has a real risk of intimidating witnesses into giving untrue testimony," one attorney said.

A spokeswoman for the Queen's district attorney said the office will "dispute the facts of the case and will proceed accordingly."

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