Federal Appeals Court reverses lower court and allows police to keep surveillance records secret

A recent appeals court ruling allowed the New York City Police Department to keep secret thousands of files it collected leading up to the 2004 Republican National Convention. It also protects the strategies and sources that the NYPD used when it sent officers worldwide to infiltrate various protest groups. Citing “law enforcement privilege” the court rejected the New York Civil Liberties Union’s attempts to make the information public.

New York Times

Al Baker

Reversing a lower court ruling, a panel of federal judges decided that New York City can keep secret roughly 1,800 pages of records of police surveillance leading up to the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York.

The ruling, by a panel of the Unites States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, was a decisive victory for city lawyers, who have been waging a long fight to keep the Police Department’s voluminous intelligence documents from public view.

Ultimately, the panel concluded that a “law enforcement privilege” outweighed the need to open the documents to public scrutiny, according to the 43-page decision written by Judge José A. Cabranes. He was joined in the ruling by two judges, Debra A. Livingston and Richard C. Wesley.

The documents revolve around the Police Department’s deployment of undercover detectives around the world to gather information on political activists and others who were planning demonstrations in the days leading to the summer convention in the city, according to a sampling of the records reviewed by The New York Times.

Last year, a federal judge rejected the city’s attempts to avoid releasing the documents to the public, affirming a prior conclusion reached by a federal magistrate judge.

But the Court of Appeals said the lower court made some errors in its assessment of the matter and concluded, “We vacate the December 10, 2009, order of the district court; and we instruct the district court to deny plaintiffs’ motion to compel the production of the field reports.”

The plaintiffs in the case are represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union. Lawyers for the civil liberties group have been representing those swept up in mass arrests on Aug. 31, 2004 — the convention’s second day — and have been seeking the documents to rebut claims by the police that its surveillance operations provided a legal basis for arresting and detaining people instead of issuing summonses.

The lawyers have also argued against the department’s policy of fingerprinting people charged with minor offenses.

Celeste Koeleveld, the City Law Department’s lead counsel for public safety, said, “We are gratified the court recognized that plaintiffs have no compelling need for these sensitive materials — which reveal the identities of undercover officers.”

She quoted from page 34 of the decision, pointing out that the court recognized that the information in the documents in question reinforced “the city’s assertions that the public faced a substantial threat of disruption and violence” during the Republican convention.

About Attorney John J. MacLaughlan

John MacLaughlan is Massachusetts licensed attorney as well as a Boston police officer. John is currently assigned to the Youth Violence Strike Force (Gang Unit). He is a graduate of the Massachusetts School of Law with a concentration in Labor Law. He holds a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as well as a Bachelors Degree in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. John has taught Defensive Tactics, Firearms, Use of Force, Applied Patrol Procedures, and Police Response to Active Shooters to sworn police officers and police academy recruits. Prior to becoming a Boston Police Officer, John served for 9 years as a police officer in Lowell, where he was a member of the Police Dive Team and Patrol Rifle Team.
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