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Anti-terrorism Surveillance or First Amendment violation: New Jersey Muslims sue NYPD

By   /  August 27, 2012  /  No Comments

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“If You See Something, Say Something.” This simple request was originally created by New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) for New York, but has developed into a national public awareness campaign by the Department of Homeland Security as a way to increase public awareness of the signs of terrorism and terrorism related crimes, “and to emphasize the importance of reporting suspicious activity to the proper local law enforcement authorities.” While the program has its roots in New York City, its beyond city boundaries extension has created problems for the activities New York Police Department (NYPD). In New Brunswick, New Jersey, Salil Sheth saw something and said something.

On June 2, 2009, Sheth, a building superintendent, opened the door to an apartment during a routine inspection and discovered a disturbing scene. Sheth saw no furniture except beds and no clothes. But Sheth did find pictures of terrorists, picture of local buildings, terrorist literature, computer and surveillance equipment, and two NYPD radios. Surveillance is recognized as one of eight recognized signs of terrorism. Sheth spoke up and dialed 9-1-1.

What local police and the FBI found in the apartment was not a terrorist hideout, but an NYPD safe house for undercover NYPD intelligence officers conducting anti-terrorism surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey. New Brunswick, New Jersey is less than one hour away from New York City, but clearly outside of the jurisdiction of the NYPD. This however, was not an isolated incident.

A February 2012, an Associated Press report shed some light on this secret practice of the NYPD outside of the City’s limits. The National Security Law Brief first explained the constitutional implications of this practice in March 2012 in Louisa Slocum’s article “How Far is Too Far? Constitutional Implications of the NYPD’s Monitoring Program.” Since March, the issue has continued to develop. The NYPD continues to defend the surveillance of New Jersey Muslims as legal, and with the findings of a three month investigation New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa “concluded there was no evidence to show the NYPD’s activities in the state violated New Jersey’s civil or criminal laws.”

Despite clearance by the State of New Jersey, the City of New York still may be held liable for the actions of its police department. On June 6, 2012, eight Muslim plaintiffs filed suit in Federal Court against the City of New York “to remedy the illegal targeting of New Jersey Muslims for surveillance based solely upon their religion by the New York City Police Department.” The plaintiffs of Hassan v. The City of New York include: a decorated U.S. Army Reservist and Iraq Veteran; two students at Rutgers University in New Brunswick; two businesses in Newark, New Jersey; two non-profit corporations that serve Muslims in New Jersey; and the operator of a central New Jersey Mosque.

The complaint alleges that the NYPD violated both the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of the plaintiffs since the program “singles out Plaintiffs’ religion for disfavor and intentionally denigrates Islam.” Specifically, it is alleged that the NYPD “conducted surveillance of at least twenty mosques, fourteen restaurants, eleven retail stores, two grade schools and two Muslim Student Associations in New Jersey, in addition to an untold number of individuals who own, operate, and visit those establishments.” As part of the surveillance, it is alleged that NYPD officers took pictures and video, and collected the license plate numbers of congregants as they arrived at mosques to pray in order to record those in attendance, using mounted surveillance cameras on light poles aimed at mosques to help aid in this identification. The complaint also alleges that the NYPD used undercover officers called “rakers” and “mosque crawlers” to monitor life in heavily Muslim neighborhoods and infiltrated sermons and conversations in mosques without any evidence of wrongdoing but solely because the targets were Muslim.

Through these actions, the plaintiffs allege that the NYPD program harms the Muslim community as a whole. Throughout the complaint, it is frequently mentioned that the NYPD does not engage in this type of activity for any other religious group and that these Muslims are being singled out solely due to their religion. It is alleged that “the NYPD’s blanket surveillance of Muslims casts guilt on all people of that faith by suggesting that Muslims pose a special threat to public safety. As targets of the NYPD’s discriminatory Program, the Plaintiffs and other New Jersey Muslims have, as a result, been gravely stigmatized and will continue to suffer, significant stigma.”

Since 9/11, the Muslim community in America has suffered against great backlash, for the actions of extremists who claim to share the same religion. However, all American Muslims do not lose their constitutionally protected right to freely practice their religion and their constitutionally protected right to be treated equally under the laws due to the acts of a few. This suit directly uses those Constitutional rights to challenge the increased power of surveillance, provided to police organizations like the NYPD in post 9/11 America, to monitor religious groups under the guise of anti-terrorism. While combating terrorism is and should be an important goal of police organizations, it is now up to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey to decide if and when the surveillance is not connected to any specific wrongdoing, that goal supersedes the protections offered in the First and Fourteenth Amendment.

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