FEDERAL JUDGE LIMITS POLICE VIDEO TAPING OF CROWDS

By JIM DWYER – N.Y. TIMES
In a rebuke of a surveillance practice greatly expanded by the New York Police Department after the Sept. 11 attacks, a federal judge ruled yesterday that the police must stop the routine videotaping of people at public gatherings unless there is an indication that unlawful activity may occur.

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SEE:  Full Text of the Decision (pdf)

 

Threats & Responses

Four years ago, at the request of the city, the same judge, Charles S. Haight Jr., gave the police greater authority to investigate political, social and religious groups.

In yesterday’s ruling, Judge Haight, of United States District Court in Manhattan, found that by videotaping people who were exercising their right to free speech and breaking no laws, the Police Department had ignored the milder limits he had imposed on it in 2003.

Citing two events in 2005 — a march in Harlem and a demonstration by homeless people in front of the home of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — the judge said the city had offered scant justification for videotaping the people involved.

“There was no reason to suspect or anticipate that unlawful or terrorist activity might occur,? he wrote, “or that pertinent information about or evidence of such activity might be obtained by filming the earnest faces of those concerned citizens and the signs by which they hoped to convey their message to a public official.?

While he called the police conduct “egregious,? Judge Haight also offered an unusual judicial mea culpa, taking responsibility for his own words in a 2003 order that he conceded had not been “a model of clarity.?

The restrictions on videotaping do not apply to bridges, tunnels, airports, subways or street traffic, Judge Haight noted, but are meant to control police surveillance at events where people gather to exercise their rights under the First Amendment.

“No reasonable person, and surely not this court, is unaware of the perils the New York public faces and the crucial importance of the N.Y.P.D.’s efforts to detect, prevent and punish those who would cause others harm,? Judge Haight wrote.

Jethro M. Eisenstein, one of the lawyers who challenged the videotaping practices, said that Judge Haight’s ruling would make it possible to contest other surveillance tactics, including the use of undercover officers at political gatherings. In recent years, police officers have disguised themselves as protesters, shouted feigned objections when uniformed officers were making arrests, and pretended to be mourners at a memorial event for bicycle riders killed in traffic accidents.

“This was a major push by the corporation counsel to say that the guidelines are nice but they’re yesterday’s news, and that the security establishment’s view of what is important trumps civil liberties,? Mr. Eisenstein said. “Judge Haight is saying that’s just not the way we’re doing things in New York City.?

A spokesman for Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly referred questions about the ruling to the city’s lawyers, who noted that Judge Haight did not set a deadline for destroying the tapes it had already made, and that the judge did not find the city had violated the First Amendment.

Nevertheless, Judge Haight — at times invoking the mythology of the ancient Greeks and of Harold Ross, the founding editor of The New Yorker — used blunt language to characterize the Police Department’s activities.

“There is no discernible justification for the apparent disregard of the guidelines? in his 2003 court order, he said. These spell out the broad circumstances under which the police could investigate political gatherings.

Under the guidelines, the police may conduct investigations — including videotaping — at political events only if they have indications that unlawful activity may occur, and only after they have applied for permission to the deputy commissioner in charge of the Intelligence Division.

Judge Haight noted that the Police Department had not produced

evidence that any applications for permission to videotape had ever been filed.

Near the end of his 51-page order, the judge warned that the Police Department must change its practices or face penalties.

“Any future use by the N.Y.P.D. of video and photographic equipment during the course of an investigation involving political activity? that did not follow the guidelines could result in contempt proceedings, he wrote.

 

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