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Court Calls For Closer Supervision Of NYPD Political Surveillance And Interrogation Practices

In a decision issued yesterday and made public today, U.S. District Judge Charles S. Haight, Jr. modified an earlier order in a case involving political surveillance by the New York City Police Department. The case, Handschu v. Special Services Division had been settled with a consent decree, entered in 1985, that prohibited the Police Department from investigating political and religious organizations unless there was “specific information” that a crime had been committed or was about to be committed and the group was linked to the criminal activity.

In September 2002, the New York City Police Department moved to modify the 1985 consent decree upon the claim that the decree impeded the Police Department’s efforts to investigate potential terrorism. In a decision rendered on February 11, 2003, the District Court agreed to modify the decree by allowing the Police Department to develop new guidelines that would be consistent with the guidelines developed by the U.S. Department of Justice for investigations conducted by the F.B.I. The new guidelines were not incorporated into the modified court order and were, therefore, not enforceable as part of the decree.

Subsequently it became apparent that the police officials were not even living up to these new guidelines. In April, the New York Civil Liberties Union received information that individuals who were arrested at various anti-war protests in the City had been interrogated about their organizational affiliations and political beliefs. As a result of the new revelations regarding the NYPD’s interrogation practices, the lawyers representing the class of plaintiffs in the Handschu case requested that the District Court reconsider its decision of February 11.

In yesterday’s decision the court agreed to incorporate the new guidelines into a court order in a way that would allow more vigorous enforcement in circumstances where a failure to comply with the guidelines amounts to a constitutional violation. In doing so, the Court observed that the events surrounding the interrogation of anti-war protestors “reveal an NYPD in some need of discipline.” The lawyers representing the class of plaintiffs in the Handschu case and requested yesterday’s modification are Jethro Eisenstein, Paul Chevigny, Martin Stolar and Franklin Siegel.

Speaking for the plaintiff class, Mr. Eisenstein noted: “Judge Haight’s decision today struck a wise balance on public safety and freedom of expression, two of the most vital issues of our time. Telling the police they will remain accountable for following their own rules when they investigate possible crime by some, in situations where most New Yorkers lawfully engage in protected constitutional activity, is a total win for the public’s interests in the War on Terrorism.”

Arthur Eisenberg, Legal Director of the NYCLU, also assisted plaintiffs’ counsel in the case. Mr. Eisenberg observed: “the interrogations of individuals about their political beliefs and associations raise serious constitutional concerns. Those concerns, arising out of the revelations about the interrogation of anti-war protesters have now led the Court to conclude that there is a need for closer judicial supervision of the NYPD.”

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