OBIT: Michele Maxian, 55, Dies; Won Shorter Lockup Times

Michele Maxian, 55, Dies; Won Shorter Lockup Times


Michele Maxian, a Legal Aid Society lawyer who successfully battled to require New York State courts to arraign a suspect within 24 hours of being arrested, helping to spur reform in the New York City justice system, died last Tuesday in Union City, N.J. She was 55.

The cause was ovarian cancer, the society said. Ms. Maxian lived in Hoboken.

In January 1990, Ms. Maxian began filing petitions against New York City police and correction officials questioning why people were being imprisoned for minor offenses for more than 24 hours without being formally charged.

In April 1990, Justice Brenda S. Soloff of State Supreme Court consolidated the 900 petitions Ms. Maxian had filed on one day into a single case.

Ms. Maxian attributed the delays to inefficiency, not malevolence. The city ultimately responded by streamlining procedures.

At the time of the suit, people were typically being kept for 39 or 40 hours while they were being booked and fingerprinted, going through other police procedures and then waiting to appear before a judge to be charged and make a plea. Many of those being held faced minor charges: for example, one person involved in the suit had been arrested for selling umbrellas without a license and then detained for 95 hours.

Justice Soloff ruled that delays of longer than 24 hours were “unnecessary” under a state law requiring expeditious judicial proceedings.

The Legal Aid Society had previously tried but failed to get a federal ruling that any time period longer than 24 hours represented “cruel and unusual punishment” under the United States Constitution.

Although the society won a 1987 federal case, the decision was overturned on appeal in 1988, with the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit holding that 24 hours was “unrealistic” for the crowded New York City court system and instead allowing 72 hours between arrest and arraignment.

The United States Supreme Court declined to hear the society’s appeal.

So Ms. Maxian, who had been involved in the first suit, turned to the state courts. She won by convincing Justice Soloff that the city was wasting time at the expense of people who had been arrested but not charged with any crime.

She convinced the judge that 24 hours was, indeed, the most reasonable time limit. The judge required the city to justify periods longer than that on an individual basis.

The 1990 decision was based entirely on language in a state law, so broader Constitutional issues did not come into play. It was upheld on appeal to the highest state court.

Ms. Maxian monitored compliance with the ruling and filed grievances when the time limit was exceeded in the mid-1990s. In recent years, with crime down and the criminal justice system less crowded, the city has usually met the 24-hour guideline.

But in 2004, she used the 24-hour guideline as the basis for a suit against the city, charging that it was illegally detaining protesters at the Republican National Convention. She won a settlement in 2005 under which the city paid the arrested people and their lawyers $231,200.

Ms. Maxian graduated from Douglass College and the Rutgers University Law School. She began as a trial lawyer in Legal Aid’s Manhattan office from 1976 to 1982 and was twice director of the special litigation unit, from 1988 to 1998 and from 2002 until her death.

She is survived by her partner of 32 years, Marianne Ardito, and her brother, Richard Maxian, who lives in Georgia.

Another of her legal victories was persuading courts, including the highest one in New York State in 1988, to strike down a ban on loitering in subway, train or bus stations. She persuaded judges that police questioning of apparent loiterers violated their right to remain silent.

“Police are still going to be able to arrest people for doing crimes, but they can’t just arrest people for being suspicious,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press.

November 21, 2006

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