Lawsuit Charges Police Department With Engaging in Religious Discrimination, Violating First Amendment
June 18, 2013
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NEW YORK – The NYPD is routinely violating the civil rights of Muslims across New York City by operating an unconstitutional religious profiling and suspicionless surveillance program, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by New York City residents represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project of Main Street Legal Services, Inc. at CUNY School of Law.
The landmark lawsuit charges that the NYPD's Muslim Surveillance Program has imposed an unjustified badge of suspicion and stigma on hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers. It was filed on behalf of religious and community leaders, mosques, and a charitable organization that were all swept up in the NYPD's dragnet surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers. These individuals and organizations seek systemic reforms that will end the NYPD's spying program in which entire communities of New Yorkers have been singled out simply because of their religious beliefs.
"When a police department turns law-abiding people into suspects because they go to a mosque and not a church or a synagogue, it violates our Constitution's guarantees of equality and religious freedom," said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project. "No one questions that the NYPD has a job to do, but spying on innocent New Yorkers because of their religion is a wrong and ineffective way to do it. We are asking the court to end the NYPD's unconstitutional religious discrimination."
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The City of New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen are listed as defendants. It argues that the NYPD's Muslim Surveillance Program violates the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, the First Amendment's right to the free exercise of religion and guarantee of neutrality toward all religions, and the New York State Constitution.
As documented extensively by the NYPD's own records, its Intelligence Division has built a program dedicated to the total suspicionless surveillance of Muslims in the greater New York City area. Officers and informants routinely monitor restaurants, bookstores, and mosques, and create records of innocent conversations. The department also sends paid infiltrators into mosques, student associations, and beyond to take photos, write down license plate numbers, and keep notes on people for no reason other than because they are Muslim. An NYPD official admitted that the mapping activities have not generated a single lead or resulted in even one terrorism investigation.
Plaintiff Asad Dandia, a 20-year-old Brooklyn resident and sophomore at Kingsborough Community College, helped found a charitable organization as an expression of his faith. Muslims Giving Back provides food to New York families in need. The small student group was infiltrated by an NYPD informant, who accompanied Dandia to his home for dinner and met his parents, and once even spent the night.
After the NYPD informant revealed himself, Dandia and his group lost their meeting location at a local mosque, donations to the organization have declined, it has had a difficult time attracting new members, and current members worry that another informant may be in their midst. Dandia says he has changed how he speaks and acts for fear that anything he says or does can be taken out of context.
"I am constantly frightened. What if I say the wrong thing?" said Dandia. "Islam requires giving back to the community that which you have been given by God. I've done nothing wrong and yet I am unable to practice Islam fully because of what the Police Department did to me."
Imam Hamid Hassan Raza, spiritual leader of Brooklyn's Masjid Al-Ansar mosque, has been taping his sermons for years because he is afraid an undercover officer or NYPD spy will misquote him or take a portion of a sermon out of context, subjecting him and his mosque to even more law enforcement scrutiny. After plainclothes officers visited him repeatedly for no reason, he has also stopped mentioning topics that the NYPD might consider controversial, and urges congregants to do the same. Raza has seen a steep decline in mosque attendance as a result of the Muslim Surveillance Program.
"I don't talk to my congregants about current affairs or religious subjects the NYPD may find objectionable because I'm afraid of further police attention. The surveillance program has prevented me from fulfilling my duty as an imam," Raza said. "I cannot believe this has happened in the country that I know and love."
The lawsuit asks the court to end the NYPD's Muslim Surveillance Program, and to prevent future surveillance based solely or predominantly on religion in the absence of individualized suspicion of criminal activity. It also seeks to expunge the records of all of the plaintiffs that were created because of the program, and to appoint a monitor to ensure that New York City truly ends all of the unconstitutional practices inherent in its religious profiling practices.
"NYPD surveillance has affected every facet of American Muslim life in our city," said Ramzi Kassem, supervising attorney at CLEAR and associate professor of law at CUNY. "The program has stifled speech, disrupted communal life and chilled religious practice, and it has criminalized a broad segment of American Muslims."
"The NYPD is supposed to protect New Yorkers but it is instead stigmatizing hundreds of thousands of community members as disloyal and inherently dangerous simply because of their religion," said NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg. "Religious diversity has been a foundation of life in New York City for more than 300 years. This program not only violates our Constitution and our values as Americans and New Yorkers, but it promotes ignorance and prejudice."
In addition to Shamsi, Kassem, and Eisenberg, lawyers on the case include Nusrat Jahan Choudhury and Patrick Toomey of the ACLU, Diala Shamas of CLEAR, and Mariko Hirose of the NYCLU.