A judge recently ruled that New York City police can't use information from sealed arrest records as part of other investigations.
The New York City Police Department can’t use information found within sealed arrest records when they investigate other matters, as the practice is barred by state law, a New York judge has ruled in a putative class action challenging the practice.
The plain language of amendments made in 1976 to the New York State Human Rights Law and the Criminal Procedure Law make it clear that information included in arrests that do not lead to criminal convictions of individuals must be sealed, and not used by officers as part of investigations into other matters, according to the April 29 decision by Judge Alexander M. Tisch of New York Supreme Court, New York County.
Attorneys with Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP and the nonprofit Bronx Defenders filed the case in April 2018 against New York City on behalf of several individuals identified only by their initials.
The plaintiffs contend that the department’s practice has likely led to a vast database of information — including Social Security numbers, fingerprints, photographs and contact information for relatives — of an untold number of New Yorkers who were never found guilty of the charges filed against them.
“The NYPD has spent years assembling a massive database of New Yorkers — the majority of them black and Latinx — that marks people for life based solely on accusations,” Jenn Rolnick Borchetta, deputy director of the Bronx Defenders’ impact litigation practice, said in a statement.
“The NYPD cannot ignore this ruling ... it’s a major step toward safeguarding privacy and the presumption of innocence for all New Yorkers,” she added.
The named plaintiffs in the case contend that the NYPD has used and disclosed information contained within their sealed arrest records as part of new investigations, according to their complaint.
Plaintiff R.C., for example, alleges that he was charged with robbery after police developed a photo lineup using a picture from dismissed arrest, even though the incident occurred at a time when he was out of state, according to the complaint. He needed to appear in court 10 times to fight the charges and ultimately lost his job because of work absences, R.C. alleges.
Judge Tisch’s order clears the way for discovery to proceed in the case, with a preliminary conference set for later this month, according to the decision.
In that decision, Judge Tisch rejected assertions by the NYPD that the protections laid out in the 1976 amendments to the laws only pertain to sealing information from interfering with an individual’s education, employment or qualifying for insurance or credit, writing that “such a strained interpretation has no precedence in the courts.”
The judge also shot down the NYPD’s arguments that within the department, the amendments only limit officers from disclosing information to outside parties.
The amendments’ plain language clarifies that information in arrest records that ended in an individual’s favor can’t be used for purposes such as investigations, according to the decision.
“A review of the plain language, together with the legislative intent, purpose and judicial interpretation of the sealing renders it abundantly clear that defendants’ interpretation of the statute is without merit,” reads the decision by Judge Tisch to deny the NYPD’s bid to dismiss the case.
The NYPD is reviewing the implications of the judge's decision, otherwise declining to comment, said Detective Sophia Mason, a spokeswoman for the department, to Law360 on Friday.
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--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.