Judges question NYPD spying on Muslims

By MICHAEL SCHREIBER

 PHILADELPHIA—Federal judges in a Jan. 13 appeals court hearing have indicated that they are favorable to the premises of a suit against the New York City Police Department (NYPD) for its surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey. The suit, Hassan v. City of New York, had been dismissed by a federal district court in February 2014. A challenge to this decision was then brought to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, and argued by attorneys from Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).

The 11 plaintiffs in the case include a coalition of New Jersey mosques, Rutgers University students, the former principal of a school for Muslim girls, and an Army veteran of the Iraq War—all of whom have stated that the NYPD had spied on them solely on account of their religious affiliation.

Since the beginning of its heightened surveillance program in 2002, the NYPD has spied on at least 20 mosques, 14 restaurants, 11 retail stores, two grade schools, and two Muslim Student Associations in New Jersey alone. The department has employed people to infiltrate these locations, in addition to gathering video and photographic “evidence.” Internal NYPD documents, including a list of 28 “ancestries of interest,” demonstrated that the police targeted people on the basis of their ethnic background and Muslim faith.

The lower court had rejected the suit last year on the grounds that “the police could not have monitored New Jersey for Muslim terrorist activities without monitoring the Muslim community itself,” as Judge William J. Martini wrote in the decision.

The appellants rejected this reasoning. “By creating a Muslim exception to the bedrock principles of equality and religious freedom, the lower court opinion signals that Muslims are to be second-class citizens,” said CCR Legal Director Baher Azmy, who argued the case in the Philadelphia appeals court. “The Constitution prohibits singling out an entire faith for discriminatory policing, simply because a handful of totally unrelated adherents committed criminal acts. Painful historical lessons remind us that courts should not sanction such overt discrimination by law enforcement, even in times of fear.”

Statements by the appeals court judges on Jan. 13 indicate that they understand these concerns. Judge Julio Fuentes, one of the three judges hearing the appeal, said that he would not wish to attend a mosque if it were under police surveillance. Judge Thomas Ambro stated that, in his opinion, under the NYPD’s criteria for spying, “you’re not just following those who are persons of interest. You’re following everyone.”

According to the CCR, it could take several months for the judges to rule on whether the case should be sent back to district court.

Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action