NEW YORK CITY – Yesterday, class counsel in Handschu v. Special Services Division sent a letter to the New York City Law Department directed at reports that NYPD officers and FBI agents interrogated individuals about their political associations and activities after they were arrested for curfew violations while they were peacefully protesting the killing of George Floyd.
The Handschu case is a long-standing class action, filed in 1971, challenging NYPD investigations of political organizations and activities. It has yielded several consent decrees over the years in efforts to limit excessive and unreasonable investigations into First Amendment-protected activity by the NYPD. The rules governing NYPD surveillance of political and other First Amendment-protected activity are called Handschu Guidelines, originally ordered by the court in 1985; but modified in 2003 in the wake of 9/11; and modified again in 2017 after it was revealed that NYPD officers had conducted widespread surveillance in Muslim communities.
In the letter sent today, class counsel request information about the scope of interrogations conducted in the last two weeks of protesters who were arrested on minor charges during protests following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people at the hands of police. Individuals arrested reported that they were questioned by NYPD personnel and FBI agents about their affiliation with “antifa” and other political groups, the social media accounts they followed in relation to the protests, and their knowledge about the organizers of the protests.
There have been previous incidents involving NYPD political interrogations of peaceful protestors. In 2003, anti-war protestors were questioned about their political affiliations and views. In response, the federal court judge in the Handschu case, Charles S. Haight, Jr., reprimanded the NYPD for its conduct. In 2014, individuals who were arrested while protesting the killing of Eric Garner were similarly questioned. On that occasion, the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Legal Affairs committed that there would be no interrogations of this sort without specific authorization by the NYPD’s Legal Bureau.
"In this inquiry, counsel for the Handschu class seek to initiate a process by which we can ensure that the NYPD adheres to its prior commitments and to the requirements of the Handschu decree," said Arthur Eisenberg, Executive Counsel to the NYCLU, and one of the class counsel in the case.
Specifically, the letter asks the Department of Law to share how many arrested individuals were interrogated, which NYPD bureaus were involved, whether the FBI was involved in interrogations, whether or how these interrogations were authorized, and whether the notes of these interrogations are being maintained by the NYPD. Handschu guidelines expressly prohibit the keeping of records collected during arrests and investigations for First Amendment-protected activity.
"It’s an outrage that people engaged in First Amendment conduct are subjected to interrogation about their First Amendment activities,” said Martin Stolar, one of the counsel in the case. “That's what the Handschu case and the guidelines are designed to prevent.”
Other class counsel in the case include Jethro Eisenstein, Franklin Siegel and Paul Chevigny.