This story was originally published on October 24 by THE CITY.
A lawsuit filed by the family of a transgender woman who died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island should be put on hold, city lawyers contend.
The city, in legal papers, cited an internal probe by the Correction Department into Layleen Polanco’s June death and a criminal investigation by the Bronx District Attorney’s office.
The de Blasio administration’s delay bid infuriated Polanco’s loved ones, who fear the wrongful death case could be put off for months or even years.
“They know they are 100 percent wrong and they are just trying to prolong the case,” said Melania Brown, Polanco’s sister. “The whole purpose of this is because we want to know what happened to her. We are demanding answers.”
Polanco, 27, died after being given 20 days in solitary, despite suffering from epilepsy and schizophrenia, according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of her mother, Aracelis Polanco.
Layleen was found “cold to the touch” inside her cell on the ninth day of her sentence at the Rose M. Singer Center on June 7, according to the family’s federal lawsuit, filed in August.
Polanco, whose death galvanized efforts to end or sharply limit solitary confinement, succumbed to a seizure related to epilepsy, the city’s medical examiner ruled in July.
‘Don’t Want to Interfere’
A city Law Department spokesperson on Wednesday afternoon defended its October 7 motion to delay the civil case.
“We don’t want to interfere with the (Bronx) district attorney’s ongoing investigation,” said Nicholas Paolucci.
City lawyers also contend the Department of Correction’s internal investigation must be finished before the civil case can proceed.
But David Shanies, the Polanco family’s lawyer, said the Bronx District Attorney’s office has not asked for the lawsuit to be put off.
“I have communicated numerous times with the prosecutor handling this matter, and I informed him well in advance that we would be filing this lawsuit,” Shanies said in court filing responding to the city’s motion to stay the case.
A Bronx DA spokesperson said the office has finished interviewing witnesses and reviewing records in the case, but has not made a final determination or recommendation.
Shanies pointed out that shortly after Polanco’s death a city spokesperson said her family and all New Yorkers “deserve answers, and we’re working quickly to determine the cause of her tragic death.”
A Common Legal Tactic
City lawyers frequently try to delay civil complaints by citing ongoing criminal investigations, according to lawyers involved in multiple pending municipal lawsuits.
“I have a number of cases with situations like that,” said lawyer Sanford Rubenstein. “Many times, they go on for years.”
Defendants can invoke their Fifth Amendment right against incriminating themselves when there is an ongoing criminal case, a legal move that can muck up a simultaneous civil proceeding.
City lawyers took an almost identical approach to the pending civil lawsuit filed on behalf of former inmate Casey Holloway’s family. Holloway was fatally choked by another inmate at Rikers on July 9, 2018.
In that case, Josh Kelner, the lawyer representing the Holloway family, successfully argued the civil proceeding should be allowed to move ahead. He noted that Artemio Rosa pleaded guilty to strangulation and was sentenced to eight years in prison on August 14.
The city’s legal maneuver in the Polanco family’s lawsuit emerged as a Board of Correction commissioner and inmate advocates accused the de Blasio administration of stalling proposed solitary confinement reforms in a bid to water them down.
City officials counter that more time is needed to examine the proposals — among them, limiting inmate time in isolation to 15 days, down from 30 — and they denied interfering with the city jails oversight board.
This story has been updated with a clarification from the Bronx DA’s office on the status of its investigation into Layleen Polanco’s death.
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.