- Associated Press - Thursday, August 20, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) - A New York City judge ruled Thursday that a city agency investigating possible misconduct by a police officer who held Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold cannot have access to minutes from the grand jury probe that decided against bringing criminal charges against the officer.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board, a police watchdog agency, had sought the minutes as part of an investigation into misconduct claims against Officer Daniel Pantaleo and others following Garner’s death in July 2014.

The 43-year-old Garner died after police suspected him of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. When he refused to be handcuffed, the 6-foot-2, 395-pound black man was taken to the ground in a chokehold by Pantaleo, who is white. In bystander cellphone videos, Garner is heard repeatedly yelling “I can’t breathe!” before he loses consciousness.

Attorneys for the board argued investigators needed access to the grand jury minutes because it provided “the freshest sworn testimony about the death of Mr. Garner,” according to court papers.

But prosecutors on Staten Island opposed the agency’s request, saying the board had no standing to obtain the records, which are typically kept secret. A spokesman for acting Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Master Jr. declined to comment on the judge’s ruling.

“Simply, the (Civilian Complaint Review Board) has not presented ‘compelling’ arguments for the disclosure of the grand jury minutes,” Judge William Garnett said in the ruling.

“Disclosure to the CCRB would set a bad precedent,” the judge wrote. “In cases of this magnitude, the Board could simply suspend any investigation, wait for the result of the grand jury presentation, argue that it now needs the minutes because they reflect the ‘freshest,’ sworn recollection of the witnesses, critique the action of the grand jury and assess the behavior of the police officers on a cold reading of the grand jury minutes.”

The review board’s chairman, Richard Emery, said he believes the judge’s decision was not in line with the law and vowed to file an expedited appeal. He said it is obvious that the agency’s investigators would need access to the grand jury minutes in order to complete their probe.

“To do the thorough investigation we want to do, we would like to have the grand jury minutes,” Emery told The Associated Press on Thursday. “And if we have to make decisions without those matters, we may be forced to do so, but at this point while we still have time to obtain the grand jury minutes, there’s no reason not to push forward.”

The review board said in court filings that it had been asked by prosecutors to hold off on an independent inquiry as the Justice Department and the Staten Island district attorney’s office conducted investigations.

Staten Island prosecutors lifted their hold in December 2014 when the grand jury voted against an indictment in the case. The Justice Department’s federal civil-rights probe is still ongoing. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York declined to comment Thursday.

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