Judge Restricts New York Police Surveillance
By JIM DWYER
In a rebuke of a surveillance practice greatly expanded by the New York Police Department after the Sept. 11 attacks, a federal judge ruled today that the police must stop the routine videotaping of people at public gatherings unless there was an indication that unlawful activity may occur.
Nearly four years ago, at the request of New York City, the same judge, Charles S. Haight Jr., had given the police greater authority to investigate political, social and religious groups.
In today’s ruling, however, Judge Haight of Federal 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 Upper East Side home of Mayor Michael Bloomberg — the judge said the city 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.
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