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New York City Civil Rights Law Blog

Civil remedies exist to hold police accountable for misconduct

Readers of this criminal defense blog may still have doubts whether a strong defense can be raised to victims of false arrest or police brutality or misconduct. The answer is a resounding yes. 

For example, an attorney that focuses on both areas can prepare both a strong criminal defense to any charges, while concurrently preparing a strategy for bringing a civil action against the officers who acted wrongly. Our firm has had several recent successes in that regard, often resulting in significant financial settlements.

Array of racial, constitutional issues underscored by Ferguson

The sad truth is, it’s a rare day indeed when a New York City civil rights blogger needs to look beyond a single newspaper to find plenty of topics to discuss. On this blog, we cover police brutality allegations against the NYPD virtually exclusively, and credible allegations against the NYPD are in the newspapers every single day.

The most pressing issues here in NYC have been racial profiling -- whether that means a demonstrably racist application of Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” policy, the same disparities in the application of de Blasio’s “broken windows” policy, or the continued secret surveillance of innocent Muslims. We also routinely see reports of false arrests, police harassment, refusal by officers to allow civilians to lawfully record their activities, the excessive use of force, and homicidal negligence at Rikers Island. We’ve seen a father of six choked to death on a public street for denying he had done anything wrong.

CCRB chair: Ray Kelly undercut sentences in past choke hold cases

Speaking at a special session Tuesday, Chairman Richard D. Emery of the Civilian Complaint Review Board expressed his dismay at how former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly handled complaints of choke hold use. On July 17, five police officers tackled Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six whom they accused of selling loose cigarettes. During the altercation, an NYPD officer put Garner in a prohibited choke hold. He died on a Staten Island sidewalk.

Choke holds have been prohibited by NYPD policy since 1983. The New York City medical examiner has ruled Garner’s death a homicide, citing the cause as “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”

Sadly, deaths caused by the NYPD’s use of excessive force aren’t uncommon, but the shocking events caught on videotape that day caught the attention of even the most hardened city dwellers. The CCRB special session, among other gatherings, was held in an attempt to confront what seems to careful observers to be flagrant and routine use of excessive force by some NYPD officers, along with other substandard policing practices.

Final roadblock to stop-and-frisk reform is overcome ... maybe

Sometimes it seems as if the fight to stop the abusive, racially-motivated “stop-and-frisk” practices by NYPD officers is a never-ending one. As you probably know, a federal judge ruled last August that stop-and-frisk -- at least as practiced under the Bloomberg Administration -- was an unconstitutional "policy of indirect racial profiling" and a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against illegal search and seizure. That ruling, however, was put on hold pending appeal.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, however, that appeal was abandoned and the judge’s ruling was used to craft a settlement between the city, civil rights groups and victims of the unlawful activity. Basically, that settlement called for three common-sense reforms to protect New Yorkers from further constitutional violations:

  • Retraining officers on what constitutes a legal basis for stopping and frisking people.
  • A pilot program in which some officers would wear body cameras in order to promote transparency.
  • An independent monitor to be appointed to scrutinize officers’ use of stop-and-frisk and to oversee the NYPD’s compliance with the settlement.

'This time there's a video,' says Sharpton at Garner's funeral

By now, most readers in New York and, indeed, people across the country are aware of the tragic death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six who lived on Staten Island. Last Thursday, Garner apparently broke up a fight. As cellphone video taken by a passerby shows, five NYPD officers then confronted Garner, accusing him of selling loose cigarettes.

Garner insisted he had sold nothing. He complained that he’d been repeatedly harassed by the NYPD over offenses he didn’t commit. He reportedly told the officers, “Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today.”

He was right. When the officers attempted to cuff him he pulled away, so several officers wrestled him to the ground. Then, one cop put him in a choke hold -- a tactic that has been prohibited by NYPD policy since 1983 because it’s just too dangerous. Garner, who suffered from asthma, repeatedly complained that he couldn’t breathe, but he was ignored. He died on the sidewalk.

FBI fails to entrap student in terrorist plot, arrests him anyway

Ahmed Abassi was a good student, described by his friends as kind, considerate and generous. The native of Tunisia was working on his dissertation at Laval University in Quebec. There, he met the woman he was to marry -- both a fellow graduate student and a fellow Tunisian.

Two years ago, the pair went to Tunisia to marry, both assuming they would return to Canada and finish their studies. Abruptly and inexplicably, however, Canada revoked Abassi’s visa. Reluctantly, his wife returned without him.

Abassi was desperate to get back to his wife and studies, so it seemed lucky when “Tamer,” a man he vaguely knew, offered to help him resolve the Canadian visa issue. Since he claimed this would be easier done from the U.S., Tamer offered to help Abassi get to New York. He even offered him a job -- on paper -- and a Manhattan apartment. Abassi landed at JFK last March and, as agreed, told immigration officials he had a job at Tamer’s real estate company. He later repeated that on his green card application.

It was a setup from the very beginning. Tamer was an undercover FBI agent. From the moment he arrived, Abassi was under heavy surveillance and Tamer began pressuring him to join an alleged jihadist plan to derail a Canadian passenger train. Tamer thought Abassi was a good prospect because the young man, then 25, had some extremely negative opinions about the U.S.

Man beaten, sodomized by cops despite another officer's protest

Law enforcement officers are often faced with challenging or even dangerous situations. Our law and constitution recognize that they need to use force in certain circumstances, such as to apprehend suspects, to prevent violence, or to keep contraband out of jail facilities. Legally, however, they can use no greater force than necessary to achieve a legitimate objective.

Sometimes when an officer exceeds that authority, it’s due to poor training or oversight. The reality is, however, that some officers use force to “teach a lesson” to someone in their power. That’s illegal.

A federal lawsuit alleging a shocking abuse of police authority was filed this week against the city and 10 NYPD officers from the 122nd Precinct in Staten Island. Unfortunately, it appears that these officers were fully aware they were breaking the law -- one brave officer stepped up to make sure they did.

NYPD data: Shooting spike unrelated to drop in stop-and-frisk

As we celebrate Independence Day, New Yorkers should be heartened to know that far fewer innocent people are being stopped and frisked by the NYPD these days. How do we know? The NYPD’s own numbers show that stop-and-frisk activity is way down, yet the arrest rate remains the same.

Supporters of the controversial policy, citing stories of a surge in shootings in the city, fear that the drop in stop-and-frisk activity could be responsible. Has the demise of stop-and-frisk left more guns and armed criminals on our streets to make mayhem?

Apparently not. Commissioner Bill Bratton, evidently well-aware that these questions would be asked, ordered the Department to get the facts. While it’s true that the number of shootings in the city has increased slightly when compared to last year, NYPD data demonstrates that there’s simply no correlation between the reduction in stop-and-frisk activity and any additional shootings.

Facebook: New York secret warrant order violates users' privacy

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision on the privacy rights of smart phone users. Unanimously, the justices ruled that the fact a suspect happens to be carrying a cellphone at the time of arrest does not relieve police officers of their obligation to obtain a warrant before examining its contents.

The court estimated that about 90 percent of American adults own an iPhone or Android device that can access the Internet and cloud storage locations. This means, as Chief Justice John Roberts explained, that many users “keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives — from the mundane to the intimate.”

That crucial difference between cellphones and other items means they deserve more protection. Historically, warrantless police searches of items found in the possession of arrestees hasn’t been considered an unlawful search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court’s new ruling requires a warrant, except in limited circumstances.

Court: victims can sue NYPD officers for wrongful stop-and-frisk

The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy has been among the most widely debated constitutional or civil rights issues in New York City. As we discussed on this blog at the time, last year a federal judge ruled that stop-and-frisk is essentially "indirect racial profiling" that violates the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents. Siding with police unions, the Bloomberg administration appealed that ruling, but in January, Mayor de Blasio dropped that appeal in an effort to move reform forward.

Reform of the stop-and-frisk policy also moved forward on a parallel path at the New York City Council. Last summer, the council passed two sections of the Community Safety Act: the NYPD Oversight Act, which establishes a system of independent oversight, and the End Discriminatory Profiling Act, also known as Local Law 71, meant to end racial profiling by the NYPD.

The police unions immediately sought an injunction blocking a key provision of Local Law 71 -- the one that gives individuals the right to sue the NYPD if they can show they were illegally stopped and frisked on account of ethnicity or certain other personal factors.

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