Suit against Division of Human Rights heard in Supreme Court in Jefferson County

WATERTOWN — In a half-hour hearing on the 10th floor of the Dulles State Office Building on Thursday, state Supreme Court Judge James McClusky heard the arguments in a case that could have consequences across the state. The case will decide whether the state Division of Human Rights has the jurisdiction to investigate alleged violations of rights by police during arrests and in jails, giving New York residents an option for redress outside of private, civil suits.

“I think it’s necessary for people like me and everybody — all New Yorkers — if something happens to them, they have somewhere to go,” plaintiff DeAnna LeTray told the Times.

The case was brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union against the state Division of Human Rights, the Watertown City Police and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department on behalf of LeTray, a transgender woman and Watertown resident who was arrested by city police in September 2017 after a domestic dispute.

LeTray alleged in a complaint to the Division of Human Rights that police and sheriff’s deputies made derogatory statements about her and that she was abused at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building by sheriff’s deputies. The division dismissed her complaint not on the merits, but because it claimed a lack of jurisdiction as “police and corrections agencies are not public accommodations under the New York State Human Rights Law.”

Erin Beth Harrist, LeTray’s attorney from NYCLU, argued Thursday that the police are, in fact, public accommodations and that jails and correctional facilities fall under the definition of housing. “The petition asked this court to confirm that police are public accommodations and jails are housing accommodations,” Harrist said.

According to this interpretation of the law, the Division of Human Rights would have the authority to investigate LeTray’s claims as well as complaints against law enforcement across the state.

The argument had two major components — whether police are public accommodations, and whether the holding cell, and the abuse alleged there, would fall under housing accommodations.

Harrist said police clearly fall into public accommodations.

“It is an entity that provides service to the public; that is what the police do,” Harrist said.

Erin Sobkowski, the attorney for the Division of Human Rights, argued that the division has held since the 1960s that police and jails are not public accommodations.

“Involuntary confinement by law enforcement officers is not a public accommodation,” Sobkowski said. “That’s not a service available to the public generally.”

Arrests by law enforcement, Sobkowski said, are governed by a different set of laws.

“That’s just on its face, Judge, not something that the division has any expertise to review,” she said.

There was also some discussion over whether the defeat of an Assembly Bill — A-121 — that would have explicitly added “public entity” to the definition of a public accommodation was relevant. Sobkowski argued that the defeat of the bill meant that public entities like police were not included. Harrist argued it could be that the bill failed because it was unnecessary — public entities already fell under public accommodation.

On the issue of housing discrimination, Harrist repeatedly argued that the broad definition of housing in the human rights law — “the home, residence or sleeping place of one or more human beings” — included jails.

Sobkowski said the abuse alleged would not fall under housing discrimination.

“In the petitioner’s reply papers it clarified that part of what they believe was housing discrimination was the strip search that was conducted on Ms. LeTray,” Sobkowski said. “It’s just so clear that that is not housing; it’s part of being arrested.”

Because there are no exact parallel cases in New York state law, much of the argument revolved around precedent at the federal level and in other states with similar law regarding public accommodation. Harrist argued other state and federal courts have long acknowledged public accommodations include police, while Sobkowski claimed the cases cited did not apply.

Judge McClusky asked questions of both Sobkowski and Harrist, and at the end of the hearing he announced he would release a decision in two to four weeks.

Sobkowski declined to be interviewed and provided information for the Division of Human Rights public relations, who said they could not comment on pending litigation.

Harrist said she felt good about the hearing.

“I thought it went great,” she said. “I think once again (the Division of Human Rights) are ignoring the plain language to the statute.”

LeTray said she hopes the Division of Human Rights investigates her case, but she understood its arguments.

“I understand the Division of Human Rights; this is new to them as well,” she said.

LeTray said being in court made her nervous, but she appreciated the legal work of Harrist and other attorneys.

“They’re fantastic,” she said. “I’m happy to have them on my team.”