The Law Behind Judge’s Ruling to Release Homeless Woman in Alleged Assault Case

By Carol Tannenhauser

On November 18th, Judge Anne Swern released Larissa Williams — a homeless woman accused of throwing a block of wood that hit and injured a passerby — issuing an “unsecured appearance bond,” which requires only a signed promise to appear in court or a fine if the accused fails to do so. The Manhattan DA’s office, with the support of Deputy Inspector Timothy Malin of the 20th Precinct, had requested $10,000 cash bail or a $20,000 bond, but the judge denied the requests.

Many readers questioned Judge Swern’s ruling, wondering why Williams was released with a Class D Felony Assault. Here is what we found out.

Under current New York State law, in addition to the decision that she made, Judge Swern had the options of releasing Williams with some form of cash bail or ordering pretrial detention. Judge Swern did not consider the latter, according to Lucian Chalfen, director of public information for the New York State court system, because “even the District Attorney did not ask for that.” In an email to WSR, Chalfen explained why Judge Swern chose the terms of release she did.

“In New York State, the purpose of bail is to ensure the defendant’s return to court. Currently and continuing after January 1st, 2020 with the new criminal justice reforms, a judge’s decision on any type of bail, supervised release or release on one’s own recognizance is predicated on the defendant’s return to court. Nothing else. While this defendant does have another open criminal matter, she did make every court date in that case. Any changes to conditions or requirements in the bail statute must come from the state legislature.”

As for referring Williams for services or treatment, “The pretrial agency who does the assessment — CJA — would recommend that,” Chalfen wrote. CJA (Criminal Justice Act) in this context refers to the public defender who will be appointed to represent Larissa Williams. She is due in court on Friday.

Here is a link to the major provisions of the Bail Reform Law, which goes into effect in January, 2020.

Photo by s_falkow.

NEWS | 44 comments | permalink
    1. Sherman says:

      It should be noted that Judge Swern is a big advocate of “criminal justice reform”.

      This sounds good at first blush but it is often a euphemism for judges being soft on criminals.

      So it seems like Judge Swern’s personal liberal politics – rather than a strict interpretation of the law – resulted in Larissa Williams being out on the street today.

      • Jerry says:

        @ Sherman…There is absolutely no basis for your statement that Judge Swern’s personal liberal politics resulted in Larissa Williams’ release pending today’s court appearance. It’s as if you didn’t even read the statement from Lucian Chalfen, director of public information for the New York State court system.

      • EricaC says:

        She may indeed be a liberal – but if you read this, you will see that she was squarely on point with what she was required to do under the law. You may dislike the law, but I presume you are a believer in complying with the law, given your own evident inclinations.

    2. westsidegal says:

      Thank you AOC and gang!

      Keep criminals on the street 2020

      • Jerry says:

        @ Westsidegal…I don’t know if your ludicrous comment even rises to the level of a non sequitur! “AOC and gang” have nothing to do with a defendant being released on bail. As the statement from director of public information for the New York State court system explained, “…release on one’s own recognizance is predicated on the defendant’s return to court. Nothing else.”

    3. naro says:

      Face it. Our future is increasing crime, violence and homelessness. We are powerless to stop it. Hell is coming to NYC. Get out.

      • Al says:

        Be grateful you don’t live in San Francisco!!

      • sg says:

        So true…I sold my co-op on CPW in 2017 and will be retiring out of the city and Northeast next year….it can’t come soon enough! It’s roo bad that the city is reverting to the pre-Giuliani days.

    4. Ben David says:

      Smart, thoughtful coverage from WS Rag, thank you.
      Disclaimer: I vote Democratic in national elections.
      However, the rising crime stats, the protection of criminals in NYC, the tolerance for violence by homeless, the non-enforcement of quality of life violations, the scared police, and on and on … is what you get — and will get — when you vote Democratic in NYC. Change your vote, or be prepared for more crime and more urine-soaked streets in New York City’s future.

      • Juan says:

        I agree 100%. I am a lifelong Democrat. I hate Trump passionately. But this city is getting ridiculous.

        Some might argue that stop and frisk went too far (I personally supported it, though it could have been done better). But this 180 to have no enforcement of quality of life crimes is horrible. I feel really bad for our law enforcement officers who are unable to do their jobs.

        I am completely in favor of respecting people’s rights, but by being a repeat offender who injured a random bystander, Ms. Williams sacrificed her rights. She should not be on the streets right now.

        I do not support the judge’s decision and interpretation of the law but unfortunately I think this decision was largely made over her head. And by greatly reducing the number of jail cells, this will only get worse. I think taxes are increasing way too quickly here but I would be happy to pay more if they were used to support improved quality of life, such as having criminals off the streets.

        Thank you to WSR for the very helpful update.

        • Marina says:

          I am so relieved to read your comments. Thank you for sharing, it is so important.

          I’m from Europe, I arrived three years ago in this beautiful city and I am amazed to see how it feels good to be here, people are so nice, respectful and more importantly it is safe. But the question is, for how long?

          Reading about “How NYC became safe” taught me a lot about the importance of communities and the bond between the public and the law enforcement. Things I have never experienced before. Now, we are seeing the new political party in charge thinking his way to run the city is better, let’s say “nicer”. Being nicer won’t help resolving problems, NY needs to make decisions for the “common good” and not only focusing on individual rights. We don’t know how good things are until we loose them.

          Do you know what it feels to constantly have to think “don’t go there, it might be dangerous…don’t do that, you might get in trouble…don’t go out at night without male friends…make sure to keep your bag close to you, someone is going to steal your wallet…panicking for this, for that…why should I call the police, they cannot do anything anyway…” This was my life back in Europe and maybe this is small details, but people don’t realise how this can become quickly a nightmare.

          NYC is amazing and the NYPD even greater. Thankful everyday for their work, so please, think harder while voting, the democrats party doesn’t sound good for New York City’s future.

        • Jerry says:

          @ Juan…It saddens me to read such misinformed comments. 1- Stop and frisk as executed under the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations was declared unconstitutional by a U.S. District Court Judge in 2013. 2- Stop and frisk was a program or practice of temporarily detaining, questioning, and at times searching civilians on the street for weapons and other contraband. 3- Stop and frisk and enforcement of quality of life crimes (or “broken windows” policing) are separate and distinct from each other. 4- Crime on the Upper West Side and in NYC as a whole has continued to decrease sharply since 2013, when stop and frisk was modified so that the number of random stops of completely innocent civilians was significantly reduced. 5- Quality of life enforcement (or “broken windows” policing) under Mayor de Blasio has not ended–indeed, de Blasio’s first police commissioner, William Bratton, was NYC police commissioner under Mayor Giuliani and is a key proponent of “broken windows” policing! 6- The arrest and prosecution of Larissa Williams for the incident on Nov. 16 has nothing to do with either stop and frisk or broken windows policing. 7- decisions regarding bail are made by judges in court according to NYS law–there is no such thing as a bail decision by a judge being “largely made over her head”!

          • Juan says:

            You are very naïve. Stop and frisk enabled police officers to enforce the law. If there was a suspicious situation, they could do something about it. I will admit that there were many cases where they were likely overly aggressive about this, but it did have an impact on reducing crime. And the reason it was perceived as racist is that the majority of crimes happen in majority minority neighborhoods – I think it would be a waste of resources to have a large percentage of police officers monitoring Central Park West when not a lot of crimes happen there – stop and frisk never had much impact there. Also, it is impossible to measure how much stop and frisk helped as a deterrent.

            You can choose to ignore all the comments you want but I have seen in this and other threads countless examples of our neighborhood police officers helplessly standing by and witnessing quality of life infractions. They are not able to do anything for fear of infringing on someone’s rights, while meanwhile the perpetrator is infringing on an innocent victim’s quality of life. Ever wonder why crime stats are down? This is why. Plus it is always favorable for politicians to say that crime stats are down – these are easy stats to massage.

            People like Ms. Williams should not be on the street putting other people at risk. If she needs mental health help, then it should be provided to her. But if you are clearly witnessed committing a crime, you should be penalized for this. There is no reasonable doubt as to whether she committed a crime. That is the basis of living in a civil society. I am not saying to give her the chair. But there should be a penalty. And in case you were wondering, I am what in most parts of the country would be considered a liberal Democrat who strongly believes in the rights of everyone to receive a fair trial, and I believe in second chances. And it looks like there are many others here who agree with me, and 95% of the posters on WSR also tend to be liberal Democrats.

            • Jerry says:

              @ Juan…So I guess then that you just don’t understand the law. If a person is committing a crime, they are arrested. The police do not ignore criminal violations! Did you not know that being homeless is not a crime? Or that Larissa Williams was arrested for throwing a block of wood that hit and injured a passerby? The article was about her release on her own recognizance pending a court date for a Class D felony, not whether she was arrested in the first place!

              As for stop and frisk stopping or deterring crime, that myth has been debunked. Multiple studies have shown that there’s no real correlation between the use of stop and frisk and New York’s reduction in crime. Crime levels have continued to fall sharply in the years after stop and frisk was modified. (In other words, less stop and frisk, and still less crime.) A separate study looked at whether or not the policy had a significant effect on the number of robberies and burglaries in New York: No effect was found.

            • Doug Paul says:

              Agreed!

      • Alan Barnes says:

        The “crime stats” reveal reduced, not rising crime.

      • Marianne says:

        Ben David, I agree wholeheartedly!

    5. Ted says:

      So the thing is the guy has been living out in the median since at least the spring. Getting drunk and screaming profanities at people and cars daily. I walked by one time and saw two NYPD standing in front of Chase watching him for a very long time while he was going off.

      But that’s all they did, watch him, and never did anything. So naive me said to myself “well I guess he is harmless or the police would have done something”. I even gave him a dollar in one of his sober moments and he seemed very sad, confused and polite to me.

      I think the tolerance for this couple has gone on long enough.

      • lynn says:

        Recently when I was in a cab this man ran into the street and started shouting obscenities at the driver. He wouldn’t move away from the cab until traffic started moving. I’m sure if the cab hit him the driver would be held accountable. It’s very distressing that this has become the norm. 🙁

    6. Kaz says:

      I’m glad WSR reached out if only to underscore the fact that bail is merely supposed to be about mitigating flight risks – not about prematurely punishing them for a crime before they’ve been convicted of anything.

    7. Sam says:

      On the day of the assault I was at the corner of 79th and Broadway when Williams, who had been standing next to me, suddenly went berserk. I have to say it scared the bejeezus out of me and I felt very threatened – which I don’t normally feel. She should be in a psychiatric hospital, not jail and certainly not on the street. No mentally ill person should be on the street, left to fend for themselves. It’s a a disgrace that this is allowed.

      • UWS IMO says:

        Is Larissa Williams the down and out woman who hangs out with the mentally ill man on the 79th St. Bway median? I’ve been yelled at by that man. He seems on the edge of violence, with his ranting and harassing people crossing the street. If Larissa is the buddy of his and she hit someone with a piece of wood. There should be some way to keep her off the streets, to protect the rest of the public. If they are mentally ill and threatening, they need to be evaluated and put in a hospital, if she’s not mentally ill, then put in rehab or a low level jail, if that exists. Protecting our innocent population needs to be the priority!
        I too observed the police (half that man’s height) just watching him. Thankfully he wasn’t too bad that day.

    8. Paul says:

      There is a new homeless encampment on Broadway between 73rd and 74th streets; useless and corrupt Mayor.

    9. Josh says:

      Can we start off with this baseline reality on the UWS: crime is down. It has been at significantly lower levels than the “good old days”. This was an unfortunate incident. Maybe not even handled by our justice system in best way. That is a fair debate.

      BUT, take a look at the crime data. Talk to any police officer in the 20th or 24th and ask them about crime now compared to 80s or 90s.

      Take a look at crime data since we ended stop and frisk! This was an assault not broken window issue. Are assaults up or down (or unchanged). I know in the age of Trump facts don’t matter and we just go with how we feel things are going. But anyone who believes this is a measurable problem needs to educate themselves.

      AND stop prefacing your arguments on how these incidents are significantly on the rise when they are NOT!!!!

      If your mentality is that in a major city like Nyc, there should never be an incident ever, well you will be sorely disappointed and continue to have the view that everything is going to hell. Move to a gated community. I would venture to guess that many of those who are decrying state of the city can afford it….

      • Ben David says:

        Crime is NOT down. More and more news media are revealing that NYP Compstat numbers are no longer accurate, because if you refuse to accept complaints or discourage citizen’s from filing–as is happening in most NYPD precincts–then the numbers do not accurately reflect the current rising crime rates. Think for yourself, not the misinformation being put out by the mayor.

        • Josh says:

          That is the problem. You base crime on what you think is happening. So, because you THINK crime is not down since the 90s, therefore it is not. Check the numbers and talk to the officers. They are not taking reports on Murder? Sexual Assault? Grand Larceny? Felony assaults?

          Well that’s a pretty big scandal. Good thing you thought that for yourself…

          • HelenD says:

            The crimes that are happening are being ignored. You only need to look through the WSR to see a short list for this year. A group of men/women also attacked a man downtown shortly after we read about the 3 young men and woman who had 10 priors and viciously attacked a woman on 69th was arrested/released then skipped her court date. And now Larissa has injured a 71 year old woman and she is right back on her corner. What has to happen before you’ll take notice of what is really going on in this neighborhood?

            • Jerry says:

              @ Helen D…”The crimes that are happening are being ignored”? Your comment would be laughable if it were not so sad. And articles in WSR are your basis for claiming this? There could be articles in WSR, The Daily News and the New York Post about crime in NYC every single day and that would not prove a single, solitary thing! More than 200,000 people live on the Upper West Side; more than 8.6 million live in New York. There is going to be some crime! But every single statistic there is shows that crime in the last several years is at an all-time low!

        • Jerry says:

          @ Ben David…NYP Compstat numbers used to be accurate but now they are not? That’s your argument? What utter nonsense! Are police refusing to take reports of violent crime (not just low-level crimes)? Is that what violent crime is declining also? Does the FBI know about this? Are they also falling prey to misinformation being put out by the mayor?

          You said the police “refuse to accept complaints or discourage citizen’s from filing” in most NYPD precincts. Which precincts are the “good” ones? Which ones allow citizens to file complaints and which ones refuse or discourage?

          BTW, in late 1982 I witnessed a car break-in on my block here on the UWS. I followed the perpetrator to a nearby building where he evidently lived. I called the police, provided a description, waited outside the perpetrator’s building for the police to arrive. Guess what? The police car that arrived contained two policemen but they would not even get out of their car. They rolled down their window, spoke to me briefly, said there was nothing they could do, and drove away. I wonder if that was reported in the “good” Compstat of those days?

          But you know what else? Back then there were break-ins every day and every night in my area. There were drug deals out in the open on the corner of my block all day and all night long. There were a high number of murders and other violent crimes on a regular basis. I wonder how our current Mayor has managed to convince me that I’m not seeing any of that anymore?

      • dc says:

        There is an issue of perception. For many, there is a perception that petty crimes are on the rise and that the current administration is soft on criminals. That can often be enough to start a downward spiral of negativity and, perhaps, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    10. Womankind says:

      “‘Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?'” Ebeneezer Scrooge, “A Christmas Carol”

    11. HelenD says:

      Sorry @ Jerry, but I want to be able to walk around my own neighborhood with some sense of safety, and there have been several attacks from 86th to 68th in the B’way/Amsterdam area, in addition to the daily harassment from the homeless all the way from Victoria’s Secret to Fairway to Duane Reade and the Urgent Care centers. This is in the street/intersections, on the sidewalk, in entrances of our own buildings and business establishments, and I do NOT feel the problems in this area are being addressed. As soon as the homeless are cleared from the area in front of DR on B’way & 72nd they congregate in the recessed entryways of Gehard’s and the Emerald Inn on 72nd, and if you’re walking from B’way to WEA you you can’t see them until it’s too late. There have been several altercations btwn homeless men in front of DR and I’m getting fed up with being literally shoved around because of the domino effect in this congested area, while the police stand on the median across the street by the subway doing nothing. I cited the WSR as reference in case you’re not aware of the stories that have been posted during the past month. Stop quoting statistics and pay attention to what is going on here!

    12. MAD says:

      The homeless issue on the UWS is not new, as all readers here know. It is the same problem of not being able to get people off the street into facilities where their mental problems can be addressed. Now they are free to live on the street unless they pose a danger to themselves and others — so how is hitting a 71-year-old woman with a block of wood not being a danger to others? I would think that the perpetrator in this case should at least have been retained for psych evaluation and then further decisions made.

      • lynn says:

        I just came from Fairway and noticed that the homeless people on Broadway between 73-74 now have mattresses and bedding. I suppose it’s nice that someone did this for them, but distressing that it’s on a public sidewalk and they’re still outside. I’ve seen so many negative comments from neighbors who don’t want shelters on their blocks, but is this the preferred alternative? We have so many empty buildings and nothing can be done to help get these people inside? I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. 🙁

        • BillyUWS says:

          It’s not that they’re homeless they just don’t want help and mentally and very disturbed and more threat to the public living on the street than a homeless person is.

          • lynn says:

            I don’t understand. They’ve been out there for as long as I’ve been on the UWS. This is just the first time I’ve seen mattresses. They have homes?

        • MAD says:

          I think you have to distinguish between the mentally ill homeless and the drug-addicted homeless. I’ve read several reports about NYC being a center for cheap heroin. I also doubt that anyone gave the homeless on Broadway/73rd Street mattresses. They probably fished them out of the trash on Thursday nights. BTW, there is a homeless shelter for men on 73rd off Broadway, at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. Has there been outreach from Rutgers or do these men refuse to go because they would have to abide by the rules?

          • lynn says:

            I had no idea that there was a homeless shelter at the church, but that definitely explains why the men are so attached to the immediate neighborhood. Two of them had new high end parkas and other winter clothing on today, so it seems that they’re getting some type of care. It never occurred to me that mattresses were being taken out of the trash. Thanks for all the feedback!

            • Jack says:

              Since when did Broadway btw 73 and 74 turn into an official encampment? I just walked by and theres about 10 people living there w mattresses and furniture.

    13. OConnor says:

      I spoke to the Manhattan DA’s office and Larissa is in custody. She did not show up for her court date and is being held until trial. The DA is well aware of the situation in her case and the community’s concerns.

    14. Enough Is Enough says:

      Saw her sleeping in her usual spot this passed Friday afternoon.

      Does anyone know if she showed up for her court appearance?

    15. BJK says:

      Thank you for naming the judge right up front in this article—I thought the omission of her name in the last article was a glaring one of a fact relevant for making the public aware of governmental irresponsibility. I appreciate the remedy here.