Suffolk County police and officials have accused an attorney of making false claims about the alleged abuse of Cindy M. O’Pharrow who was arrested after a recent shooting. She is now suing. O’Pharrow, who is black, alleged that the police injured her when they forced her out of an ambulance without cause — allegations amplified by her lawyer, Frederick K. Brewington in front of cameras. However, officials claim that a dash camera disproves the allegations and they accused Brewington of lying. The controversy raises the question of when lawyers can be punished for making unsupported claim. In relation to Trump lawyers facing disbarment or sanctions, I have previously written on why such charges should be a concern for all attorneys. Notably, there has been none of the hue and cry for bar action from those supporting such sanctions against Republicans and Trump’s counsel.
O’Pharrow filed a notice of claim against Suffolk County and its police department, alleging that officers injured her arm while forcibly removing her from an ambulance after they responded to a June 27 shooting at a Dix Hills graduation party.
An internal investigation on Long Island reportedly disproved the allegations.
The officers lashed out at Brewington who told the press that there was physical abuse without cause or provocation. Acting Police Commissioner Stuart Cameron said the video shows O’Pharrow getting angry and “waving her finger” at EMS personnel and then climbing into the ambulance. The EMS crew needed to leave and the cousin of the victim is seen telling her “Just get out so they can leave.” She was lifted out of ambulance by officers so that a critically injured person could be taken to the hospital.
The controversy raises again the consistency and implication of the move to punish lawyers for claims later found unsupported. As noted earlier,
In reality, many cases collapse in court over insufficient evidence. Election challenges are made without access to critical records or data held by election boards or officials — indeed, litigants often go to court to gain such access.
Likewise, public interest lawyers often bring cases against the government, which classifies or withholds evidence. When I litigated the Area 51 case, I was suing a base that the government claimed did not exist, and all information about it was classified; we prevailed in establishing environmental violations but only after years of intense litigation and denials.
The concern in this case is that we are seeing a weaponization of bar investigations after a wide (and well-funded) campaign to harass Republican lawyers, their firms and their clients after the 2020 election. And it has worked: Many law firms are unwilling to take on Republican or conservative causes for fear of being targeted.
It is doubtful that the same lawyers and groups will be calling for disbarments or sanctions in this case. However, that is the point. There is a lack of consistent and coherent standards in when such claims will be treated as matters for bar action. I do not know what Brewington knew when he gave these interviews, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. While there is a duty of reasonable inquiry, lawyers are allowed to believe their clients and their accounts. I remain concerned about the weaponization of bar actions and how they may impact public interest cases, including police abuse cases.