December 16, 2009 — The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit against New York City and two police officers on behalf of a local environmental advocate who was targeted by police and unlawfully arrested last summer in retaliation for publicly criticizing Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro’s economic development policies and opposing his reelection.
Edward Kerry Sullivan, a longtime Staten Island resident, is executive director of the Natural Resources Protective Association (NRPA), a non-profit environmental advocacy organization that has opposed Molinaro’s efforts to commercially develop the Stapleton Homeport, an abandoned naval base on Staten Island’s North Shore that had been slated to become a public park.
In early August, Sullivan mailed letters to numerous public officials about the Homeport controversy and published a prominent letter in the Staten Island Advance calling on residents to express their dissatisfaction over the issue when they vote. Several days later, Sullivan was unlawfully arrested and handcuffed outside his home on Aug. 11 by two NYPD officers, allegedly for writing “The Jerk” on the corner of an illegally posted Molinaro campaign sign.
The officers who arrested him said they had been following Sullivan for several days and that he had made “enemies upstairs.” They also attempted to delay his original court date for more than three months – until after the November 3 election. The District Attorney’s Office dropped the charges.
“The right to criticize the government is one of our most important constitutional guarantees,” said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, who is lead counsel on the case. “It is intolerable for elected officials to recruit the police to intimidate and silence their critics.”
The lawsuit was filed on Sullivan’s behalf in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. It names the City of New York and the two police officers who arrested Sullivan as defendants. It maintains that defendants violated Sullivan’s rights under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth amendments; the New York State Constitution; and New York common law.
“It is outrageous that NYPD officers took a four-day break from protecting public safety to track and unlawfully arrest someone for opposing the borough president’s development policies,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “One expects this sort of thing under a totalitarian regime, not a constitutional democracy.”
The arrest left Sullivan, who is presently waiting for a liver transplant, physically exhausted. Fearing further reprisals, Sullivan refrained from criticizing Molinaro despite the 2009 election and Stapleton Homeport’s sale to a New Jersey developer.
In addition to Dunn, the case is being worked on by Adam Hunt, Matthew Gorman, and Stephen Knoepfler, law students enrolled in New York University School of Law’s Civil Rights Clinic.