MANHATTAN (CN) – A group of black and Latino men anonymously filed a class action Tuesday claiming the New York City Police Department illegally kept and accessed their sealed arrest reports even though they were never convicted.
“Through a series of interconnected database systems, the NYPD has a policy and practice of using sealed arrest records in the ordinary course of law enforcement activities,” according to the complaint filed in New York County Supreme Court by lead attorney Jenn Rolnick Borchetta of the Bronx Defenders.
The lawsuit continues, “The NYPD uses information in sealed arrest records to target people—including people who have never been convicted of a crime—for investigation, arrest, and harsher penalties.”
The complaint accuses the NYPD of illegally cataloging information from 400,000 different arrest records that should have been sealed, including 330,000 records relating to blacks and Latinos.
Because those groups are “disproportionately targeted” for arrest, the lawsuit states, they have a larger number of sealed arrest files.
The alleged policy and practice “threatens to perpetuate a cycle in which black and Latino people face disproportionate consequences on the basis of mere allegations,” according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs claim the NYPD’s policy violates a concept central to the U.S. justice system – the presumption of innocence
Bronx Defenders lawyers are joined in the lawsuit by attorneys with Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP.
Borchetta, a lead attorney in the case and deputy director of the Bronx Defenders’ Impact Litigation Practice, said her division has been investigating the case for a year and a half.
“I think the NYPD is violating the rights of thousands of people when it accesses sealed arrest records, and in this case we’re hoping to end the practice,” Borchetta said in a phone interview Tuesday.
She added, “We’re increasingly in an age where police departments use data to determine where to send their resources. They collect and share massive amounts of data with other organizations. It could be that the NYPD is using it for those purposes and it’s maintaining all of this data in order to use predictive policing technologies.”
A law spokesman for the NYPD said in an email Tuesday that the department would “review the lawsuit and respond in the litigation.”
The plaintiffs range in age from 24 to 52. The youngest, according to the Bronx Defenders’ website, was a restaurant manager with a G.E.D. who planned to go to college. The NYPD allegedly used a years-old photo of him in a lineup for a robbery he had nothing to do with, and the subsequent trips to court lost him his job and his college dreams.
The lawsuit also accuses the NYPD of disclosing some of that sealed information to prosecutors and members of the media, and of “marking” and “tracking” arrestees based simply on allegations against them.
The plaintiffs cite a statute of New York Criminal Procedure Law that prohibits “the use or disclosure of records related to arrests and prosecutions that terminate in a person’s favor,” such as when the charges are dropped or the person is found not guilty.
Photographs and fingerprints are supposed to be destroyed or returned to the arrestee, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint alleges most arrests by the NYPD are misdemeanors and the aggressive pursuance of minor offenses — such as through policing in neighborhoods that are predominantly black and Latino — means that charges are often dropped.