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A Case That Pushed Tiffany Cabán To Run For Queens D.A.

The public defender has garnered big-name endorsements and gained momentum heading into Tuesday’s primary.

Tiffany Cabán Photograph by Megan Magray

On a summer morning in 2017, Tiffany Cabán and her colleagues at New York County Defender Services were divvying up a basket of case files for clients scheduled to appear that day in a Manhattan arraignment court. The case Cabán drew seemed ordinary enough: It involved a parolee, Raymond (not his real name), charged with misdemeanor trespass for jumping a subway turnstile. But his motivation was striking. He told Cabán he hopped the turnstile because he didn’t have the $2.75 fare he needed to keep an appointment with his parole officer.

“He had made so much progress,” Cabán, 31, told The Appeal in an interview. “If he didn’t go to his meeting, obviously, it exposed him to a technical [parole] violation that would land him back on Rikers Island.”

Some of Cabán’s co-workers referred to Raymond as “the mayor of criminal court,” she said, because he served as a volunteer escort for other clients of their organization who appeared in court as part of a drug treatment program. Raymond was considered a role model: He had completed the same treatment program and was two years into his five-year parole term without any violations, she recalled.

“He’d come in with his girlfriend, which was always a sight to see them interact with each other,” Cabán said. “I’m five-three, he’s was five-two, and his girlfriend was, like, six feet tall.” For Cabán, the fact that Raymond had a partner felt key to his success. “I always bring her up because it was a relationship that rooted him in his community.”

Raymond’s arrest and prosecution frustrated Cabán, and not only because it threw him off track. That same summer, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance vowed to curtail such prosecutions. On June 30, 2017, Vance announced plans to end the criminal prosecution of approximately 20,000 low-level offenses annually, including subway fare evasion.

But the policy didn’t take effect until the following year. (In the first year of the policy, fare evasion arraignments in Manhattan dropped by 96 percent.) But Vance’s office proceeded with the trespass case against Cabán’s client in 2017, she said, and refused to extend a plea offer that wouldn’t result in a parole violation and the threat of jail. The case went to trial in 2018, and a judge ultimately found Cabán’s client not guilty of misdemeanor trespass and guilty of a lesser violation that did not violate his parole.

“I hesitate to say that we got a good outcome because it never should have come to that,” said Cabán, noting that the Manhattan DA’s decision to pursue the case seemed especially absurd given all Raymond had accomplished. Her client’s sobriety, his stable housing, and his personal relationships were needlessly jeopardized, she said.

“Decisions weren’t made to center public safety,” Cabán added. “If you have the right kind of DA, you can stop those practices from happening.”

With just days to go before the June 25 Democratic primary for Queens County district attorney, Cabán has shot from relative obscurity to the head of the pack. Despite having just over six years of experience as a public defender, far less experience than others in the race, she has garnered the support of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fellow member of the Democratic Socialists of America; progressive Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner; The New York Times; and most recently, presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

All have spoken of the need for a district attorney who understands life from the other side of the courtroom. “There are an awful lot of people who have said they’re progressive. And yet their deeds, their history, does not match their words,” Krasner said in his endorsement on June 6. “Tiffany’s history matches her words.”

If she prevails, Cabán will radically alter a district attorney’s office long considered stuck in the past. Richard Brown, who served as district attorney for 28 years until he died in May at age 86, resisted reforms that were transforming other prosecutors’ offices in New York City and across the nation.

According to recently released city data, Queens sent more pretrial defendants to city jails on misdemeanor charges in the last six months of 2018 than either Manhattan or Brooklyn. Cabán has pledged to decline to prosecute low-level offenses such as fare evasion, sex work, and marijuana possession while ramping up diversion programs and public health services that she says would result in less incarceration and fewer collateral costs to overly policed communities.

But she still faces strong opponents such as Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, City Councilmember Rory Lancman, and former New York Supreme Court Judge Greg Lasak. In May, the local bar association, long tied with the political establishment, decreed that only Lasak was “well qualified” to run the office of 700 attorneys and support staff that serves a borough of more than 2.3 million residents; it deemed Cabán “not approved.”

But the success of other public defenders who became DAs, such as Krasner in Philadelphia and, more recently, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in Arlington, Virginia, provided hope, Cabán said. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Cabán built a volunteer network from grassroots activist groups, launching a door-to-door canvassing effort and blanketing bus stops and coffee shops across the borough with campaign fliers. Cabán, who was born and raised in Richmond Hill, Queens, also drew on her identity as the daughter of working-class Puerto Rican parents and openly identifies as queer.

“When we talk about this movement towards dismantling the system of mass incarceration that we fed into for so long, it’s the public defenders’ way that’s going to get that done,” said Cabán, who has represented more than 1,000 New Yorkers as an attorney with both New York County Defenders Service and the Legal Aid Society. “We are recognizing not just as a borough or as a city [but] as a nation, that we need to be approaching our criminal justice system and our district attorney’s offices in a much, much different manner.”

Regardless of outcome, Cabán’s candidacy has pushed the field to the left. Her support for the decriminalization of sex work, for instance, helped bring that issue into the mainstream conversation.

During a recently televised debate between all seven candidates, Katz, who is widely seen as a more moderate choice, shifted her position on bail reform toward not requesting cash bond for nonviolent offenses, a position that Cabán has long held, said Jonathan Hiles, a New York civil rights attorney who litigated wrongful conviction cases in Queens.

Obviously, Tiffany has pushed the envelope,” Hiles told The Appeal. “Nobody is questioning whether she will follow through.”

Still, a third of likely Democratic primary voters in Queens, polled May 28-30, said they remained undecided in the DA’s race. The ALG Research poll, commissioned by Lasak, reportedly showed the former judge and Cabán with 10 percent each, compared to 34 percent for Katz.

Cabán is confident she can overcome the odds. No other candidate in the race has experience defending the kind of people that most of them now promise to divert from the criminal legal system, she said.

Some of the other candidates “helped build the problem,” she said. “They have thrived in the system that we now say really so desperately needs to be dismantled and reformed. What I represent, in so many ways, it’s just this completely clean break, independent break from the status quo.”

The Appeal: Political Report recently hosted a roundtable conversation between Aaron Morrison and other journalists covering the Queens DA race. To hear it, click here.