NYCLU Lawsuit Challenges NYPD Arrest of Brooklyn Woman for Filming Stop-and-Frisk

December 17, 2012 —  The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit challenging 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.

“Those boys could have been my brother or my cousins. If I was a man, it could have been me. I could not in good conscience walk away and allow them to be deprived of their rights without witness,” said Ms. Charles, a health policy advocate for marginalized communities who was recognized as a Champion of Change as part of President Obama’s Winning the Future Across America program. “The police humiliated them for no good reason, and then they humiliated me for taking notice. None of this should happen to any New Yorker. It is a shocking abuse of power.”

Under Mayor Bloomberg, the number of street stops has soared sevenfold, from 97,296 stops in 2002 to nearly 700,000 stops in 2011. Nine out of 10 of people stopped last year were innocent, meaning they were neither arrested nor ticketed. About 87 percent were black or Latino. Each of the top four police precincts with the most stop-and-frisk activity has a majority black or Latino population.

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.

“New Yorkers have a constitutional right to film police activity in public,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “This right is especially important in neighborhoods of color, like Bedford-Stuyvesant, that are the epicenters of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices. It empowers residents to expose abuse policing and hold the NYPD accountable for violating people’s rights.”

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.

The lawsuit, filed 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.

“Given the growing prevalence of smartphones and the explosive controversy surrounding the stop-and-frisk program, the NYPD should be training its officers to respect people’s constitutional right to film police activity in public,” said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, lead counsel in the case. “Good policing has nothing to fear from citizen oversight. Good policing embraces transparency.”

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.

“In our society, people have a clear right to document police activity in public places,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Alexis Karteron. “This right is especially important when it comes to documenting police interactions with community members. We hope this lawsuit strengthens the First Amendment rights of all New Yorkers.”

In June, the NYCLU released “Stop and Frisk Watch,” a free and innovative smart phone application that empowers New Yorkers to monitor police activity and hold the NYPD accountable for unlawful stop-and-frisk encounters and other police misconduct. The app, currently available for Android phones, will be available for iPhones early next year.

In addition to Dunn and Karteron, New York University Law School Civil Rights Clinic students Martin Sawyer and Robert Pickens also worked to prepare the lawsuit.