Legal Aid Society

Projects, Units & Initiatives

Criminal Defense Practice Special Litigation Unit

The knowledgeable and experienced members of the Special Litigation Unit develop ground-breaking impact litigation and innovative policy initiatives, build coalitions with other community organizations and leaders, engage in public education and media advocacy, and collaborate with our defender colleagues to grapple with novel legal issues arising in their daily practice.

Among other examples of our work, the Special Litigation Unit launched a successful integrated advocacy campaign to end mandatory detention of people accused of parole violations,including federal litigation challenging mandatory detention as a violation of due process and successfully campaigning for the passage of the Less is More Act, which ended detention for technical violations of parole rules and established a right to a release hearing for people accused of new crimes while on parole.

The Special Litigation Unit also led the Legal Aid Society’s response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in New York City, filing dozens of emergency cases seeking the release of medically vulnerable people following the severe, uncontrolled outbreak of the deadly pandemic on Rikers Island. The Unit succeeded in securing the release of hundreds of people whose disabilities and medical conditions risked transforming pre-trial detention into a death sentence, and lobbied city and state officials to use their discretionary powers to release many more.

Additionally, the Special Litigation Unit led Legal Aid’s response to the brutal crackdown on protests against the NYPD’s long history of police harassment and abuse that erupted following the murder of George Floyd. Our team launched a hotline and clinic to support protesters with legal advice and assistance on criminal charges relating to protest activity and on how to hold police officers accountable for wrongful arrests and excessive force. We also are co-counsel, with the New York Civil Liberties Union, in the successful systemic challenge to the NYPD’s response to the protests, which achieved a ground-breaking settlement reforming policies and practices that fostered mass arrests and widespread violence.

Our team also continues to represent the class in Davis v. City of New York and New York City Housing Authority, a groundbreaking class action regarding unconstitutional and racially discriminating stops, searches and arrests in public housing, that substantially altered the way public housing was policed and continues to subject the NYPD to monitoring of its practices to this day.

In the 1990s, the Unit litigated In re Rountree, the case that established the right to have a judge review a criminal charge within twenty-four hours of an arrest.Our team also litigated Jane Doe v. The City of New York, the first case to expose rape and sexual abuse by correctional staff at Riker’s Island; Krimstock v. Kelly, which established the due process rights of people who have their automobiles impounded by the City of New York; and Doe v. Pataki, which established the right of people convicted of sex offenses to have a fair hearing to accurately determine the “risk level” that sets obligations for ongoing registration and public notification of their status.

Litigation Docket

Learn more about our current casework on The Legal Aid Society litigation docket.