Philadelphia PA – Today, attorneys from Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to reverse a federal district court’s dismissal of Hassan v. City of New York, a case that challenges the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) blanket surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey. The plaintiffs – among them a decorated Iraq war veteran, Rutgers University students, a coalition of New Jersey mosques, and the former principal of a grade-school for Muslim girls, targeted and surveilled by the NYPD solely on account of their religious affiliation and without any criminal suspicion – had their day in court when lawyers presented oral argument inside a courthouse filled with concerned community members. This is the first time a federal appellate court will review the legality of the NYPD’s religious surveillance program.
“Today marks a critical day on the path to justice for all the victims who have been treated like criminals simply because of their faith,” said Glenn Katon, legal director of Muslim Advocates. “The NYPD has abused its powers for too long and has brazenly violated our core constitutional values of freedom and equality under the law, and we hope that today’s argument will pave the way to a ruling to protect Americans of all faiths against discrimination by law enforcement.”
Since 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 monitoring has included video surveillance, photographing, community mapping, and infiltration of places of worship, student associations, and businesses. Internal NYPD documents, including a list of 28 “ancestries of interest,” reveal that the NYPD used racial and ethnic backgrounds as proxies to identify and target adherents to the Muslim faith. Although the NYPD recently disbanded one of the main units through which it conducted the surveillance, there is no evidence that it has abandoned the underlying unlawful targeting and profiling of Muslims.
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“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 Center for Constitutional Rights Legal Director Baher Azmy, who argued the case today. “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.”
The argument is part of the plaintiffs’ appeal of a New Jersey trial court’s dismissal of the case in February 2014, when it ruled in a 10-page summary opinion, that the surveillance did not harm any of the eleven plaintiffs and that if anyone did suffer harm, it was caused not by the unlawful surveillance program, but by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of the Associated Press that exposed it. The court also accepted the City’s argument that its targeting of Muslims for their faith alone was justified in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. According to the NYPD itself, in more than ten years of operation, the City’s Muslim spying reports failed to produce a single lead.
“100 Blacks supports the plaintiffs in their case against the City of New York for the NYPD’s discriminatory Muslim surveillance program,” said Noel Leader, co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. “Such police tactics are not only wrong morally and constitutionally, but they also are ineffective police strategies that do not keep us safe.”
“Today is an important day in the history of civil rights,” said Farhaj Hassan, U.S. Army reservist and lead plaintiff in Hassan. “This lawsuit stands up for Americans of all faiths and upholds our Constitutional rights. There’s no reason that the people of my community, my mosque, or any other individual should be treated like a second-class citizen by law enforcement just because of their faith. Our police force is supposed to protect us, not spy on us because of how we pray.”
Hassan was initially filed by Muslim Advocates; the Center for Constitutional Rights and Gibbons, P.C. have joined as co-counsel. It is the first case to challenge the NYPD’s Muslim spying program.