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New York City Civil Rights Law Blog

'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.

Public housing residents protest NYPD 'shock & awe' gang sweeps

Last week, we discussed the NYPD’s disturbing, early-morning raid on the Freedom House, a city-sponsored homeless shelter. The May 23 shakeup was reportedly prompted by an uptick in local crime but, although 22 people were rousted from their beds and hauled away, none of them was connected to those crimes. Despite these lackluster results, the raids will continue, if only to serve as a “deterrent to deviant behavior.”

The warrantless raids continued on June 4. According to reports, at around 6 a.m. about 400 heavily-armed and -armored NYPD officers, with police choppers thumping overhead, descended indiscriminately upon the residents of the Manhattanville and General Grant Houses public housing complexes, along with nearby private buildings. Guns drawn, the officers swarmed through the buildings and used battering rams to force their way into people’s apartments.

NYPD apparently considers poverty to be criminally suspicious

As we hope you’re already aware, the U.S. and New York constitutions both prohibit government officials -- such as the police -- from stopping, searching or arresting people unless they have a very good reason. Innumerable court cases have carefully laid out what kinds of evidence are required before law enforcement can stop, frisk, search, detain, arrest, jail, prosecute, imprison, and punish people in our state and nation.

The voluminous rules can seem confusing, but we all get the basic idea: the government shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with our business unless it has a legitimate legal basis -- at minimum, reasonable suspicion of our involvement in criminal activity.

Membership in a particular racial or religious group, our courts have long held, does not constitute reasonable suspicion. Being poor or homeless isn’t evidence of involvement in criminal activity.

Nevertheless, the NYPD on the Upper West Side is targeting residents of homeless shelters as a matter of policy. In the early hours of May 23, officers from the 24th Precinct stormed into a local shelter called Freedom House, rousting the sleepers from their beds. 22 people were arrested on existing warrants, but not a single suspect was discovered for whom there was evidence of involvement in unsolved crimes.

Supreme Court allows for anonymous tips despite history of misuse

Anyone who follows our blog knows that the New York City Police Department is not always out to do the right thing. This is not to say that the police don't do good, but that it would be naive to think that every action they took was within the letter of the law. And when police do break the law, their victims can hold them accountable with police misconduct or police brutality lawsuits.

Police misconduct is rarely an innocuous thing. So why, then, would the Supreme Court of the United States issue a decision that could conceivably make it easier for police misconduct?

City council to discuss care of mentally ill after Rikers deaths

City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley announced that hearings have been scheduled for next month regarding ongoing reports of dangerously substandard treatment for Rikers Island inmates who suffer from mental illnesses. The Associated Press recently exposed the needless deaths of two Rikers inmates, apparently due to negligence, and the councilwoman hopes that city council oversight could address the causes of these tragedies.

As we discussed last month, 56-year-old veteran Marine Jerome Murdough, who suffered from mental illness and substance abuse, had been brought to Rikers on a minor trespassing charge. On Feb. 15, he was found dead in his cell from heat-related causes. The heater had malfunctioned, and he “basically baked to death” when guards neglected to check on him for hours.

In the other case, 39-year-old Bradley Ballard, who suffered from schizophrenia, was confined, alone, for mental observation after violating a jail rule. He was denied appropriate medication and left alone for seven days. Denied medical care and supervision, he mutilated his own genitals. When guards pulled him out seven days later he was naked, unresponsive, and covered in his own feces. An infection from the mutilation was so far advanced that he died of systemic sepsis.

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