Criminal Defense

Program Overview

In the Criminal Defense Clinic (CDC), student defenders represent indigent clients charged with misdemeanors in the New York City Criminal Court. Student defenders meet and interview their clients at arraignments (the initial court appearance in New York) in the Criminal Court, conduct negotiations with the prosecutor and the presiding judge, make any applicable motions to dismiss, and argue for their client’s release from custody. Thereafter, students remain as counsel until the charges are resolved.

Students perform the full range of lawyering tasks associated with criminal defense, including interviewing, negotiating, counseling and the full range of pretrial and trial responsibilities. Clinic clients face a variety of charges, including drug possession, assault, petty larceny, obstructing governmental administration, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. In keeping with the Clinic’s goal of providing holistic and thorough representation, student defenders represent and assist their clients in a variety of related contexts.

At arraignments, a student defender was assigned to represent a 16-year-old charged with an assault inside her high school. The student carefully reviewed the court documents with his colleagues and supervisors, and then interviewed his client in the holding cell behind the courtroom. The student then prepared an argument to have the charges dismissed based on defects in the pleadings and also prepared an argument to persuade the judge to release his client on her own recognizance. Although the motion to dismiss was denied, the client was released from custody.

The student defender spent the next several days researching the law pertaining to the charges, including the law of self-defense, and interviewing the client and numerous witnesses. During that time, the student learned that his client was now also facing a school suspension hearing at the Board of Education. The student met with experts in the field, including lawyers, social workers and guidance counselors, and defended his client at the hearing. The Administrative Law Judge found that the charges were not sustained and the client was able to stay in school. The student defender continued to meet with his client and her family and, together, they amassed a number of reference letters, report cards, and various certificates that compelled the prosecutor eventually to dismiss the charges.

As is the case with so many Clinic clients, the criminal charges led to additional, substantial problems in other legally related fora. Student defenders have represented their clients in many of these contexts, including Family Court, Housing Court, and even the Taxi and Limousine Commission. In each case, the student defender has much responsibility and is supervised carefully during a continual process of planning, doing and reflecting.

Student defenders have myriad opportunities and responsibilities in addition to individual client representation, including:

Felony Fieldwork

Student defenders work in criminal defense trial level and appellate organizations and with solo practitioners representing clients charged with serious felonies. This past year, students prepared legal memoranda, investigated, interviewed, and observed court proceedings on behalf of clients facing serious charges, including capital homicide. Some of the Clinic’s partner organizations include the Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, the Legal Aid Society, the Center for Appellate Litigation and the Office of the Appellate Defender.

Prisoner Disciplinary Hearings

Through a partnership with Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, student defenders represent New York State inmates who have received disciplinary violations and are serving lengthy sentences in solitary confinement. Student defenders review disciplinary hearing transcripts and determine if claims of constitutional and/or regulatory violations can be raised in an Article 78 petition in New York Supreme Court. Students have successfully obtained reduced sentences and expunged hearings for their clients.

Trial Advocacy

Students work in teams to prepare and conduct a pretrial suppression hearing based on a real case handled by a Clinic alum. The suppression hearing simulation exposes students to the nuances of direct and cross-examination, and the challenges of applying the facts to the law in context. As part of their work for the simulation, students prepare a pre-hearing strategy memo and a post-hearing memorandum of law.

 

Classroom Component

To effectively represent their clients, students must become well-versed in New York State and federal criminal procedure. As a result, much time in and out of class is devoted to reviewing basic principles of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments. Statutory construction and analysis is also an important part of criminal defense practice, and key portions of the New York State Penal Law and Criminal Procedure Law are analyzed repeatedly during the semester. Additionally, the Clinic highlights Professional Responsibility issues that often arise in the criminal defense context, and examines the multifaceted and pernicious impact the criminal justice system has on communities of color.

The Clinic teaching methodology revolves around a pattern of reading, observing, simulating, critiquing and reflecting. The Clinic goal is to fully familiarize students with each lawyering task before they actually perform them on behalf of their clients.

 

Clinic Graduates

Clinic graduates are substantially represented at state and federal trial and appellate defender offices across the country. Recent Criminal Defense Clinic alums are working as Public Defenders in California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Many Clinic graduates also are part of small criminal defense and civil rights firms or have their own private practice, while others can be found at not-for-profit or governmental criminal justice agencies. While many have gone on to criminal defense careers, it is important to note that the lawyering skills emphasized in the Clinic are indeed transferable to other contexts.

Many former student defenders now represent clients in a variety of litigation settings.

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Read our special feature from CUNY Law's Spring 2010 Magazine.