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Despite ruling, NYPD surveillance program is not legal

Commentary Editor

Published: Thursday, February 27, 2014

Updated: Thursday, February 27, 2014 21:02

Last week, federal judge William Martini, sitting in the US district court for New Jersey, threw out a lawsuit brought against the New York police department for surveillance activities that supposedly targeted Muslim individuals and communities. His decision not only blatantly ignores the violations to the Fourth Amendment, but also sets a dangerous precedent for not only Muslims, but all Americans.

In a series of Pulitzer Prize winning articles, the Associated Press revealed a few years ago that the NYPD had been engaging in heavy surveillance and spying activity with regards to Muslim individuals for over six years. Surveillance included, but was not limited to, mosques, heavily Muslim neighborhoods in New Jersey, restaurants, schools and even student organizations such as the Muslim Student Association at Rutgers University. After the reports were released, many Muslim individuals in the area were upset and took legal action, alleging that the NYPD’s mass surveillance was based on religious affiliation alone and in violation of their constitutional protections.

In his decision to dismiss the case, Martini wrote: “The police could not have monitored New Jersey for Muslim terrorist activities without monitoring the Muslim community itself.” In addition to these surveillances never once leading to any investigations according to the Associated Press, it is hard to argue that monitoring of a private business or private place of worship is not an unreasonable search and seizure. As such, to perform such surveillance, the NYPD would need a warrant and probable cause. There was no warrant and the only probable cause appeared to be that the individuals were Muslim, which is not probable cause; its discrimination based on religion and is no different than if individuals were surveyed because of their race.

Martini also added: “Nowhere in the complaint do plaintiffs allege that they suffered harm prior to the unauthorized release of the documents by the Associated Press. This confirms that plaintiffs’ alleged injuries flow from the Associated Press’s unauthorized disclosure of the documents. The harms are not ‘fairly traceable’ to any act of surveillance.” Essentially, according to his ruling, the Associated Press is at fault for doing their job as journalists. If this twisted ‘ignorance is bliss’ argument sounds familiar, it’s because it was used just a couple of months ago to defend the NSA, saying people wouldn’t have known their privacy was being invaded if Edward Snowden hadn’t leaked the information. However, contrary to that line of thinking, having your privacy invaded is a lot like your significant other cheating on you; just because you don’t know about it, doesn’t make it okay.

If this decision is upheld, it will set a dangerous precedent. It isn’t even limited to Muslim individuals, although in the short term that is who will most likely be affected. At its core, Martini is saying that it is perfectly legal for the government to discriminate and infringe on the rights, particularly those granted by the Fourth Amendment, of an entire community in order to stop or catch the few individuals that potentially pose a threat. Following this train of thought, there is no reason to believe the NYPD couldn’t perform surveillance on African American communities or organizations in a supposed effort to monitor crime activity within the community. In a more extreme case, this asinine logic is similar to the justification for Japanese internment camps during World War II in the now widely discredited 1944 Supreme Court case, Korematsu v United States.

There are plenty of cases where our rights are limited for our safety, such as our Second Amendment rights being limited with a ban on automatic assault rifles. However, in those cases, the people knew about it and consented to that limitation. With situations like the NYPD or the NSA, it was kept secret from the public. Rights do not simply vanish when it becomes convenient to do so. If the government can infringe on them without consent, what is point of having rights in the first place?

The plaintiffs plan on appealing the decision, and hopefully another judge will rule in their favor. Otherwise, we will be left with a green light for harmful discriminatory surveillance practices and a watered down Fourth Amendment. 

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