NYPD Sued Over Its Illegal Use Of Sealed Arrest Records

from the I-don't-know...-I-never-heard-of-no-'laws' dept

When police officers kill someone, the kneejerk reaction is to publicly disparage the dead, in hopes of making the deceased appear to have “deserved” to be killed, even if their actions during the incident didn’t appear to justify the killing. To do this, officers dig into their databases and dredge up every arrest, citation, and documented interaction with law enforcement to make it appear as though the officers have (permanently) removed a threat from the streets, rather than simply applied excessive force until the person was dead.

The NYPD is no different than other agencies. It did this following the killing of Eric Garner, leaking arrest records to press outlets in hopes of portraying the dead man as a persistent threat to public safety and police officers.

But the NYPD breaks the law when it does this. State law is supposed to prevent access to sealed arrest records — records that aren’t tied to convictions. This law is in place to protect people from discrimination and harassment by making these unavailable to be used against them when being interviewed for jobs or seeking places to live, just to name a couple of examples.

The NYPD isn’t exempt from this law, but it sure seems to feel it is.

The New York Police Department has been training its officers to break a long-standing law that bars police from snooping in the sealed arrest records of millions of innocent people, according to court papers filed in a lawsuit last week.

The news comes in a class-action lawsuit concerning the police department’s practice of flouting a state law designed to protect people from discrimination, harassment, and further legal consequences over old arrests that didn’t result in a conviction. The Bronx Defenders, a public defense organization, brought the legal action against New York City and the NYPD.

It’s not just used to turn dead bodies into terminated threats. The records are also used in court to portray accused suspects as lifelong criminals, even if the arrests never resulted in convictions. The NYPD also pulls photos from sealed records and adds them to virtual lineups, giving people with sealed records the dubious opportunity to be arrested for new crimes they possibly didn’t commit.

This isn’t the first time the NYPD’s unlawful access has been challenged. It has not only been told by legislators it can’t do this, it has been told by a judge.

In court, lawyers from the New York City Law Department, which represents the city and the NYPD, don’t deny that they’re accessing the records the law says should be sealed. Instead, they’ve argued that the law actually allows police to access sealed records without a court order. Judge Alexander Tisch rejected those arguments outright in a 2019 ruling, finding that NYPD is, in fact, bound by the law and that if the department “were seeking sealed information for an investigation, it would have to make an application to the court.”

This admission by the NYPD that it’s breaking the law should count against it in this lawsuit brought by the Bronx Defenders. Just as damning are the NYPD training materials obtained during discovery, which show that the NYPD instructs officers to break the law by telling them they don’t need a court order to access these records. A redacted version of that training document is included in the Bronx Defenders’ addendum [PDF] to its request for an injunction forcing the NYPD to respect the law.

The actual instructions are redacted (at the moment) but the Defenders’ motion makes it clear what’s hidden in those blacked-out boxes:

The NYPD’s trainings contain directions contrary to the Sealing Statutes while, at the same time, the NYPD provides officers with routine access to millions of sealed arrest records.

Law enforcement for thee, not for me, as the NYPD credo goes. The same officers willing to deploy force and make arrests over the smallest violations are willing to disobey laws that apply directly to them whenever it serves their purpose. If the Bronx Defenders secure this injunction, we’ll have to see if being told twice to follow the law by judges will finally result in these law enforcers applying the law to themselves.

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Comments on “NYPD Sued Over Its Illegal Use Of Sealed Arrest Records”

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21 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Jamie says:

How about...

Modifying the database to keep a fucking audit log? That way if some scumbag breaks the law, they can easily be prosecuted.

This isn’t exactly rocket surgery. And we know exactly why doing so isn’t considered an option.

But we could be pointing out the rather obvious solution that is already in place for thousands of other databases of sensitive information…

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: "the NYPD assertion is that this is all acceptable."

Unless there are consequences for the NYPD digging up post-hoc murder justifications, then their assertion is correct.

As with the January 6th coup attempt, right or wrong is meaningless except what is actually enforced, and those that don’t face justice for their actions will be driven to continue the same behavior.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

'Only we're allowed to do that!'

Adding to the gross hypocrisy the NYPD objected, strongly and in court(to no avail thankfully) that releasing disciplinary records of police was a terrible thing that should be blocked because it might give people the ‘wrong’ impression of the goons they employ, so not only are they perfectly willing to violate the law when it benefits them they are downright eager to flip their own argument right around when someone tries to employ a little ‘transparency’ on them.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Bloof (profile) says:

‘Hey look, friendly journalist, this guy we killed has been arrested multiple times without being convicted of anything, clearly they’re bad ‘uns. We wouldn’t just harass and ultimately murder someone for being black in the wrong neighborhood abd try to use that to smear them, that would be silly!"

Police officers should not be in charge of taking care of records and evidence, at this point they have proven they can’t be trusted with either.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Annonymouse says:

Re: Re: Re:

The same way any regulated manufacturer does it.

Workers create indexed records, supervisor reviews and signs off the report, document is then locked.

Document control tracks who and when without having to look at the contents and keeps everyone but QA and the auditors out of the database.

System designed by an American, ignored in America, implemented in Asia and Europe, Americans scrambling to catch up, except for government.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"How do you stop them keeping records when they are the ones creating them?"

The same way corporations have for a long, long time. Make the record, send it to the clerk. The clerk files it and locks it where no one but authorized personnel can get to it.

The simplest example would be the common mailbox. Once you’ve dropped your letter into the slot you aren’t retrieving it.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

"they’ve argued that the law actually allows police to access sealed records without a court order"

Funny they keep trying to require court orders for citizens to see sealed records of investigations into officers.
I wonder if they still want to do that this way if we make their records available on demand.

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If that was actually enforced I imagine it would change their tune in an instant.

Court: Fine, access to records does not require a court order and the NYPD can access them as desired-
NYPD: Huzzah, back to smearing the reputations of people we murder!
Court: … However that applies to all such records, and the public shall have equal access to police records to the same level and with the same lack of oversight.
NYPD: We changed our mind, court orders are fine!

Anonymous Coward says:

when it takes 10 cops to rub 2 brain cells together

If the Bronx Defenders secure this injunction, we’ll have to see if being told twice to follow the law by judges will finally result in these law enforcers applying the law to themselves.

they will still ignore the law! this law will need to be rewritten in crayon for them to understand! like when a special law had to be written telling them that stealing from someone is a crime!

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: when it takes 10 cops to rub 2 brain cells together

they will still ignore the law! this law will need to be rewritten in crayon for them to understand! like when a special law had to be written telling them that stealing from someone is a crime!

They’re not stupid, they’re corrupt. They know full well that they’re breaking the law they simply don’t care because there’s no penalty in doing so, until that changes it doesn’t matter how simply the law is presented to them they’ll continue to ignore it.

Lostinlodos (profile) says:

Fixed opening

When police officers kill someone, the kneejerk reaction if the left is to publicly disparage the officer.

“records that aren’t tied to convictions”
Keep in mind DAs staff come up with all sorts of deals that drop cases.

“lifelong criminals, even if the arrests never resulted in convictions”

When the petty theft junky keeps turning over his neighbours for far bigger crimes they (prosecutors) don’t usually clip their pensions off.
Despit 10+ year strings of armed robbery.

“dubious opportunity to be arrested for new crimes they possibly didn’t commit”
Or… be identified and convicted of crimes they did.

“Law enforcement for thee, not for me”
Hi so much that rings true for the dems breaking every covid regulation.

Reality, above, aside: they are breaking the law. The law needs to be changed.
It’s up to the people of NY to elect competent people to the State’s government so that law enforcement can do their job.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Fixed opening

"It’s up to the people of NY to elect competent people to the State’s government so that law enforcement can do their job."

Judging by from what I see looking into the US from outside any suggestion to apply the international rules of policing in use everywhere else will just be met with a "Soft on Crime! Badge Good! No Badge Bad!" by the bleating sheep so terrified of theor common man they’re happy to pay the biggest protection racket in town.

I think we can take it on faith, by now, that "the people" will never elect anyone willing to restrain law enforcement to do their actual job. Easier to just blame the mexicans for all ills and cater to the base who want nothing more out of life than to sate their grievance addiction.

By now I’m more than halfway convinced the republicans at least would shy away from any meaningful police reform simply because if there wasn’t crime and police brutality, what else would their base be angry about?

Zane (profile) says:

Right to be Forgotten parallels

Some obvious parallels with the Right to be Forgotten (RTBF). Interesting that some of the people complaining about the police misusing and leaking expunged records are the same who rant on about how RTBF should not be considered.

This is exactly what RTBF was designed for, to balance the rights of public interest against the rights of an individuals privacy. The simple right for a person to make the case why a search result should not appear under an individuals name.

There’s no point in laws being passed for expunging records, if records are illegally leaked and then the victim has no way to make that leaked information hard to find. And sure, there will be the rare case when a journalist can successfully argue that there is a public interest.

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