Court Reopens Lawsuit Against NYPD for Post-9/11 Surveillance Program

by Chris Fuchs /  / Updated 
Image: Zienib Noori, 20, of Albany, NY listens to a speaker at the "Today, I Am A Muslim, Too" rally in New York City on March 6
Zienib Noori, 20, of Albany, NY listens to a speaker at the "Today, I Am A Muslim, Too" rally in New York City March 6, 2011. The rally was held in response to the upcoming Congressional hearings led by Peter King (R-LI) to protest the targeting of American Muslims and Arabs. JESSICA RINALDI / Reuters

A federal appeals court Tuesday reversed a lower court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit brought against the New York Police Department three years ago that alleges a secret surveillance program begun in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that some say discriminated against Muslims.

The 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals sent the case back to U.S. District Judge William Martini, who threw out the lawsuit in February 2014 and wrote that “the more likely explanation for the surveillance was a desire to locate budding terrorist conspiracies” than a desire to discriminate, according to court papers.

In the appellate court’s ruling, the three-judge panel concluded that the allegations raised in the lawsuit tell “a story in which there is standing to complain and which present constitutional concerns that must be addressed and, if true, redressed.”

Lead plaintiff Farhaj Hassan, an Iraq War veteran, praised the decision in a statement released by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal organization that later joined the lawsuit.

“I am so pleased the court recognized our claim that the NYPD is violating our basic rights as Americans and were wrong to do so,” he said. “No one should ever be spied on and treated like a suspect simply because of his or her faith, and today’s ruling paves the path to holding the NYPD accountable for ripping up the Constitution. Enough is enough.”

The New York City Law Department said in a statement Tuesday that it was reviewing the case.

“At this stage, the issue is whether the NYPD in fact surveilled individuals and businesses solely because they are Muslim, something the NYPD has never condoned,” a law department spokesman told NBC News in an email. “Stigmatizing a group based on its religion is contrary to our values.”

The plaintiffs, including a former grade-school principal of Muslim girls, filed the lawsuit in 2012, arguing that Muslim religious identity was being used as a “permissible proxy for criminality” in the NYPD’s surveillance program, which began in 2002. According to court documents, the plaintiffs allege that the NYPD monitored Muslims, their businesses and houses of worship, as well as schools and organizations in New York City and New Jersey.

The program’s intent, the plaintiffs argue, was to “target Muslim entities and individuals in New Jersey for investigation solely because they are Muslim or believed to be Muslim,” rather than because there was “evidence of wrongdoing,” according to court documents.

The plaintiffs allege that the NYPD employed a number of spy tactics, including taking photos and video, gathering license plate numbers of mosque congregants, and installing video cameras on light poles aimed at mosques that authorities could control by computer, court documents said.

In one instance, the plaintiffs said, an NYPD officer allegedly went on a rafting trip with members of a Muslim student association, discussing religious topics and asking them how often they prayed, according to court documents.

The Associated Press wrote about the surveillance program in 2012, reporting that it was so secretive that then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who is now a U.S. senator from New Jersey, didn’t even know about it. The AP won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage.

The NYPD last year disbanded the unit involved in the surveillance program, a decision that at the time drew praise from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.