Charles v. City of New York (Challenging unlawful arrest of NYC resident for filming stop-and-frisk encounter)

E.D.N.Y., Index No. CV 12 6180 (direct)
This case challenges the NYPD’s unlawful arrest of a Brooklyn woman for recording a stop-and-frisk encounter in her Brooklyn neighborhood.

The plaintiff, Hadiyah Charles, used her smartphone to record two NYPD officers as they questioned and frisked three black youth whom had been innocently fixing a bicycle down the street from her Bedford-Stuyvesant home. The police officers tried to prevent Ms. Charles from filming the encounter by shoving her, handcuffing her, arresting her, and holding her in a jail cell for 90 minutes.

The lawsuit, filed on Dec. 17 2012 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, asserts that NYPD officers are improperly trained in how to respect the rights of onlookers to film police activity in public.

The lawsuit names the City of New York, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly and the three officers involved in the incident as defendants. It asks the court to declare that the officers’ actions violated Ms. Charles’s rights under the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution and New York law, and that the City of New York is responsible for those violations because it has failed to train NYPD officers appropriately.

Bedford-Stuyvesant is among the city neighborhoods most affected by the stop-and-frisk program. In 2011, NYPD officers conducted more than 14,000 police stops in the 79th Precinct, which is located in the neighborhood. Nearly 92 percent of people stopped were black or Latino. Less than 4 percent of stops resulted in an arrest.

On June 5, 2012, Ms. Charles was walking from her subway stop to her apartment – a two-block stretch on Clifton Place where more than 60 street stops occurred in 2011 – when she saw the two officers questioning and frisking three young men she recognized from the neighborhood. It appeared to Ms. Charles that the youths were fixing an upturned bicycle. The youths repeatedly told the officers that they had done nothing wrong and were only fixing the bike.

Ms. Charles approached the officers and the youths and questioned them about what was happening. One of the officers replied that it was “police business.” Ms. Charles was asked to step away from the scene. At this point, she stepped back and began recording the incident with her smartphone. One of the officers tried to stop Ms. Charles from filming by repeatedly asking her to step further away. At no time was she interfering with the police officers’ actions.

At one point, one of the officers shoved Ms. Charles – an act observed by several witnesses. Ms. Charles told a supervising officer on the scene that she wished to file a complaint. In response, the officers handcuffed Ms. Charles and placed her in the back of a patrol car. Then she was driven to the 79th Precinct and placed in a small holding cell. While she was detained, an officer told her, “This is what happens when you get involved.”

Ms. Charles was freed from the cell after about 90 minutes and issued a summons for disorderly conduct, a non-criminal violation, which was subsequently dismissed. None of the three youths involved in the incident was arrested or issued a summons.

NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn and Senior Staff Attorney Alexis Karteron are the attorneys on this case. New York University Law School Civil Rights Clinic students Martin Sawyer and Robert Pickens worked to prepare the lawsuit.