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Thanks to an initiative by the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, victims of even minor police abuse will have their day in court–small claims court, that is.

Mehira Gilden, vice president of the guild’s Lawyers Against Police Abuse Program, says small claims litigation is a fast, cheap option for litigating cases of police misconduct such as sexual harassment and wrongful arrest, giving victims a way to hold police accountable.

“You don’t need [physical] injuries to have your rights violated,” she says. “Any kind of case can be taken to small claims as long as you’re seeking some kind of financial relief.”

The guild’s main objective isn’t to help clients win damages, however. “We tell people that monetary relief could be far down the road,” says Matthew Schneider, co-director of the program, adding that the primary purpose is to document abuses and create an official record of abuses outside the Civilian Compliant Review Board. “[Small claims victories] could be used in later trials to show that [an offender] has a history of abuse,” Schneider says.

Even when the plaintiff is triumphant, getting government to cough up damages has proven difficult. The Los Angeles chapter of the guild ran a similar program and pushed more than 500 cases through small claims–only to have most victories overturned in state Supreme Court, says James Lafferty, the L.A. chapter’s executive director.

Schneider says their first small claims case here in New York, brought by a homeless man who says he was wrongfully arrested, is pending. The guild provides assistance to abuse victims in gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses and preparing testimony for court appearances, Schneider says. Lawyers cannot represent plaintiffs during small claims trials, but guild members can be present. The guild’s police abuse program can be reached at 212-255-4181 ext. 6.

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