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Bill proposes commission to investigate complaints against state prosecutors

By Richard Moody
Staff Writer

May 12, 2014
Two lawmakers are seeking support as their bill to create the first-ever commission to investigate complaints about prosecutors makes its way through the Senate.

Sen. John DeFrancisco and Assemblyman Nick Perry's bill (S.6286/A.8634) would create the first statewide Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct in the nation. The commission would be charged with investigating complaints against prosecutors and according to DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, would possess a power ranging from censure to recommendation of removal. Upon recommendation from the commission to remove a prosecutor from his or her position, the state Court of Appeals would review evidence and make the ultimate decision.

"This may seem radical at this stage, but major changes sometimes do seem radical," DeFrancisco said at a press conference to bring attention to the bill.

Both DeFrancisco and Perry, D-Brooklyn, stressed the bill is not an attack on prosecutors in light of recent investigations into wrong-doers in the Legislature.

The legislators likened the new commission to the Commission on Judicial Conduct created in1975 which, according to Steve Downs, former chief investigator for the Commission on Judicial Conduct, brought the investigation process of judges out of the court system so it could be properly conducted.

"I think experience has taught us over the years that professional bodies trying to discipline themselves is an unworkable system," Downs said. "For 100 years prior to 1975 only 23 judges were disciplined. In the 39 years since 1975, 826 judges have been disciplined and 166 removed from office."

Downs is also a member of the advisory board for It Could Happen To You, a group that advocates for defendants' rights and supports DeFrancisco's bill.

DeFrancisco said when he was a practicing lawyer around the time the Commission on Judicial Conduct was created there was push-back from judges, but it became a well received method of weeding out judges that gave the profession a bad name. He said the same thing will be true about the Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct.

"The problem that we've seen is that prosecutors have more discretion than any public official, in my judgement," DeFrancisco said. "With that broad discretion, I believe, comes substantially greater accountability. And right now we learn about a prosecutors' misconduct several years after someone has gone to jail."

DeFrancisco said this new commission would create a pathway for complaints to be made, which could possibly save someone from wrongful conviction, but also will clear the name of any prosecutor found to have been wrongfully accused of misconduct.

The bill passed unanimously through the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and now is in the Finance Committee. It still awaits a vote in the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

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