By: Matt Sledge


A federal judge ruled last week that targets of the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims can probe the department’s files.

Brooklyn U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen’s order comes at an early phase of a lawsuit against the NYPD, one of three such ongoing legal efforts. It will allow the plaintiffs in the case, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, to make extensive legal discovery that could bolster their allegations that the department has engaged in unconstitutional spying.

The ACLU sued the NYPD over revelations from reporting by the Associated Press that the NYPD had engaged in widespread surveillance of Muslim communities in and around New York City. Another group is suing over spying in New Jersey, and civil rights lawyers have also revived a lawsuit, first filed in the 1970s, in an attempt to curb the department’s surveillance after 9/11.

As part of its lawsuit, the ACLU is trying to find out whether the police force’s internal surveillance policies endorsed targeting Muslims because of their religion. A lawyer for the NYPD argued in court last month that the department had no program that surveilled Muslims solely because of their religion, and the city offered to hand over only documents pertaining to the Muslim individuals and groups who are plaintiffs in the ACLU suit. The ACLU countered that that would allow the NYPD to essentially put the plaintiffs  instead of the police under the microscope.

Chen sided in part with the ACLU, ruling that the NYPD would need to turn over records of its surveillance policies. At the same time, however, she blocked the civil liberties group from searching through police documents to discover how often Muslims are targeted for surveillance as opposed to non-Muslims.

“We’re gratified that the judge rejected the NYPD’s defense that we should not obtain documents showing it acted with a discriminatory purpose,” Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement. “For the first time, the NYPD will have to produce key records about its Muslim surveillance program, and answer questions about its biased policies and practices.”

The city, which will have two and a half months to turn over NYPD Intelligence Division strategy and policy documents, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.