Eight American Muslims have filed a federal lawsuit to put an end to a post-9/11 surveillance program run by the New York Police Department. The lawsuit follows a New Jersey Attorney General probe saying the NYPD had done nothing wrong.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Newark Wednesday by Muslim Advocates, a group who has taken up the New Jersey Muslims' cause. The suit claims that identifying as Muslim does not constitute "a legitimate criterion" for law-enforcement officials to target individuals for surveillance.
"This case is critical to protecting the civil rights of American Muslims and all Americans," Muslim Advocates legal director Glen Katon said.
New Jersey Representative Rush Holt called the lawsuit "a thoughtful, sensible step toward bringing law enforcement practices back into line with constitutional protections and the standards of good policing."
It is the first such legal action to directly challenge the NYPD for spying on Muslims following the attacks of September 11, 2001. An Associated Press investigation last year uncovered a systematic surveillance program that put entire Muslim neighborhoods under a watchful eye, recording the every move of their residents. Undercover police infiltrated dozens of mosques and student groups while investigating scores more in New York City and neighboring New Jersey.
Records showed that police paid special attention to grocery stores that carried halal or kosher food products, eavesdropped on Muslim-owned stores, cafes and hair salons, placed mosques under surveillance during Friday prayers, and even went so far as to photograph an elementary school for Muslim girls.
While New Jersey lawmakers were up in arms upon learning of the intrusive spying program, after a three month review, the state's attorney found there was no legal means to stop the NYPD from carrying out their practice of targeting mosques, business and student groups for surveillance.
Both NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and the city's mayor Michael Bloomberg have supported the spying program, saying the information is obtained within departmental guidelines which are within constitutional bounds.
Kelly further stated that the 2001 attacks showed that the city could not rely solely on the federal government to provide for its security.
As it is, the program operates with limited oversight. The New York City Council claims it isn't qualified to supervise intelligence operations, while Congress says the NYPD is out of its jurisdiction despite the billions in federal largesse the city receives each year.
Lawmakers and civil rights groups have urged the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD's practices. A Justice Department spokeswoman said those requests were currently under review.
But Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, said state and federal stonewalling made the lawsuit inevitable.
"With New York officials refusing to look into the NYPD's abuses, the New Jersey Attorney General saying his hands are tied, and the U.S. Department of Justice dragging its heels, this lawsuit is the victims' last resort for justice to prevail."
"What makes America great is that everyone is treated equally under the law. These plaintiffs are ordinary citizens going about their lives who law enforcement spied on simply because of their faith," she added.