The case of Bursac v. Suozzi involved the DWI “Wall of Shame” and stood for the fact that a DWI defendant has constitutional protected due process rights even before they are required to appear in court for a DWI trial. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of a criminal defendant to due process. The due process guarantee means that a DWI defendant has the right to a fair trial where the fact-finding process is not distorted or where the jury is unduly swayed in some manner. The due process guarantee means that a DWI defendant is protected under the Constitution from an unfair trial process which may include intrusive media coverage meant to exert outside influence on the decision-making process. Due process rights are also meant to protect against situations where a DWI defendant is treated in a manner that conveys an impression of guilt before trial. All DWI defendants, according to the Constitution, are presumed innocent and the concept of due process protects their rights against prejudicial effect of any negative press coverage. If there is any threat to the fairness of the proceedings in a DWI trial due to negative publicity, the proceedings might be subject to scrutiny by the judge in the case.
The “Wall of Shame”
The DWI “Wall of Shame” was created in 2008 by Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi and Nassau County Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey. Suozzi and Mulvey created the Wall of Shame following a Memorial Day accident where a police officer was seriously injured by a drunk driver after he had pulled over another DWI suspect. The Wall of Shame was a website operated by the County Executive that showed the mug shots and names of those arrested for DWI in Nassau County. Suozzi created the Wall of Shame for the express purpose of punishing those arrested for DWI by publicizing their arrest information so that friends and family members could find out about their crimes. In defending the website, Suozzi stated that the DWI arrest information published was a matter of public record and that the website stressed that all the DWI defendants shown were presumed innocent.
Bursac v. Suozzi
On July 10, 2008, Alexandra Bursac was arrested and charged with DWI and DWAI Drugs in Nassau County. Bursac had no prior arrests or convictions for DWI. One week after her arrest, Suozzi posted Bursac’s name and arrest picture on the Wall of Shame. At the time Bursac’s picture was posted, she had not yet been convicted of the DWI charge. Bursac sent a letter to the County Executive and asked him to remove her information from the Wall of Shame. After Suozzi refused to remove the information, Bursac filed a lawsuit claiming that the Wall of Shame deprived her of her constitutionally protected right to due process and the equal protection of the law. In the lawsuit, Bursac also claimed that the Wall of Shame website was unconstitutional because it denied her the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair hearing and procedural due process for the DWI charge.
Bursac based her claim on the fact that posting her name and picture caused her to suffer public humiliation, possible loss of employment, and a multitude of future harm without her having been found guilty of the DWI charge. Bursac argued that the Wall of Shame was a form of punishment which went beyond the authority of the County Executive to impose.
In deciding the case, the Nassau County Supreme Court used what is called the stigma plus test. Under the stigmas plus test, a plaintiff may bring a claim against a government agency for defamation if they have suffered a future loss as the result of the defamation such as the loss of property interest in obtaining a job. In using the stigma plus claim, a plaintiff must show in court that the government agency in question injured their reputation by using derogatory statements and that this caused an alteration of the plaintiff’s status. The court found that because the Wall of Shame postings resulted in limitless notoriety without any controls, this satisfied the stigmas plus test. The court ruled that posting Bursac’s information on the website violated her due process rights because it caused her humiliation and could affect her legal status by causing her information to be available to potential employers.
After the ruling in Bursac’s favor, Suozzi amended the Wall of Shame in late 2008 to only include information about those who had been convicted of DWI after a trial or plea bargain. The backlash against the website continued with detractors arguing that the new format still used “shaming” which was a method of punishment beyond what New York State statutes allowed. In late 2008, the County Executive decided to finally take down the website.
For more on the courts opinion on this case, click here.
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