Three-Year-Old Commission Hochul Tapped for Rochester DA Traffic Stop Has Never Taken a Case

After DA Sandra Doorley berated a police officer, Hochul referred her to a commission that is yet to become active — and lacks the authority to issue discipline.

Chris Gelardi   ·   April 30, 2024
New York Governor Kathy Hochul speaks in front of a blue and yellow banner that reads  District Attorneys Association of the State of New York.
Governor Kathy Hochul speaks at the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York winter conference on February 2, 2024. | Susan Watts / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Governor Kathy Hochul referred Rochester-area District Attorney Sandra Doorley to a state misconduct commission on Sunday, after Doorley drew national attention for berating a police officer who had attempted to pull her over.

“I am the DA of Monroe County,” Doorley says in police body camera footage shot from her garage, where she proceeded to drive after the cop tried to stop her for speeding. “I don’t really care,” she adds. “If you give me a traffic ticket, that’s fine. I’m the one who prosecutes it.”

In a statement Sunday, the governor accused Doorley of “claiming she is above the law, attempting to use her public office to evade responsibility, and acting unprofessionally.” She announced that she had sent the case to the New York state Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct.

The Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct, however, isn’t operational. Even if it were, it would lack disciplinary power — thanks to a lawsuit brought by the state’s district attorneys.

Former Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation creating the CPC in June 2021, two months before he resigned and Hochul took over. It hasn’t taken a single case in the nearly three years since.

It took the state over a year and a half to staff the commission. It’s supposed to have 11 members, appointed by various branches of state government. The state’s then–chief judge made her appointments in late 2021, and Democratic legislators announced their appointees soon after. But Hochul took until February 2023 to fill three of her four slots and give the commission the quorum it requires to operate.

Then the CPC took another year to hire a top administrator, who only got to drafting the commission’s core rules and procedures this month. Those rules entered a requisite 60-day comment period last week, likely meaning that the earliest the CPC could pick up the Doorley case — and any other complaints that have piled up over the last three years — is late June.

CPC chair Michael Simons did not answer New York Focus’s questions about why it has taken so long for the commission to become operational, nor requests for a timeline for taking up the Doorley case. “We are aware of the Governor’s public statements regarding her referral,” he said in a statement.

Hochul’s office did not respond to questions about her delayed appointments before publication.

Hochul has a history of neglecting appointment responsibilities, particularly when it comes to the criminal justice system. As New York Focus reported in December, seven of nine spots on a governor-appointed board that reviews complaints from jailed people are sitting vacant. Meanwhile, over half of the members of the state Board of Parole, which makes decisions on whether to release people from prison, are serving expired terms. (Even with the zombie commissioners, the parole board is two members shy of its full complement of 19.)

DAASNY tried to kill the current commission, too — under Doorley’s leadership.

The unfilled vacancies can leave defendants and incarcerated people with virtually no avenue for relief from abuse or misconduct. Advocates have long complained that parole board understaffing leads the body to deny parole more frequently. Meanwhile, the mostly empty jail complaint council spends only seconds reviewing each case, and it rejects almost all of them.

The CPC isn’t the state’s first attempt to rein in problematic prosecutors. The legislature passed a bill creating a prosecutorial misconduct commission in 2018, but the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY) sued to stop it. State courts declared that version of the body unconstitutional.

DAASNY — under Doorley’s leadership — tried to kill the latest iteration of the CPC, too. Then president of the powerful association, Doorley sent a letter to Cuomo in 2021, arguing that the CPC’s establishment would risk “additional wounds to our joint reputations and the public’s perception” amid rising violent crime. She advocated instead to revamp an existing attorney grievance process, in which secretive state committees rarely sanction lawyers.

Doorley’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

How effective the CPC will be at holding prosecutors accountable remains an open question. It’ll likely be more transparent than the current grievance process: Under its proposed rules, the commission would make “the record of its proceedings” publicly available after issuing its final recommendations.

But the commission has no disciplinary power. The DAASNY lawsuit spurred changes that left it able only to recommend that a separate grievance committee impose sanctions.

Before last week’s police run-in, Doorley faced several allegations of misconduct and over-prosecution during her 12-year tenure as Monroe County DA.

In 2014, she unsuccessfully decided to retry a man for a double murder after three people testified that another man had confessed to the killings. The following year, the state’s highest court overturned a murder conviction she prosecuted, alleging that Doorley falsely told the jury that the defendant’s DNA evidence was “all over the crime scene.”

In 2022, Doorely faced an ethics inquiry for co-chairing former Republican Representative Lee Zeldin’s 2022 campaign for governor.

On Monday, Doorley released a video apologizing for her actions during the traffic stop. She said she would cooperate with investigations by another district attorney and the existing grievance committee.

“I’ve been humbled by my own stupidity, and I’m fully to blame,” she said.

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
Also filed in Criminal Justice

Advocates charge that New York’s restrictions for sex offense registrants are “vague, expansive, and unnecessary.” On Tuesday, they filed a federal lawsuit to strike them down.

The Senate will consider Daniel Martuscello III’s bid to run New York’s prison and parole agency. His supporters point to his decades of experience. His opponents say that’s the problem.

After New York’s top court overturned Harvey Weinstein’s conviction, state lawmakers want to let prosecutors bring evidence from past uncharged sexual assaults.

Also filed in New York State

State lawmakers are set to introduce a sweeping proposal for a public takeover of Central Hudson, the region’s scandal-plagued gas and electric utility.

New Yorkers for Local Businesses has spent half a million dollars trying to kill a bill to help workers recover stolen wages. Almost all its backers appear to own McDonald’s franchises.

In New York, unemployment recipients can be found guilty of fraud even if they thought their information was true. The state demands repayment at the highest rate in the country.