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 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.