June 6 (Bloomberg) -- A group of Muslims sued New York City over the police department’s surveillance of their co-religionists in New Jersey, claiming the program violates their rights under the U.S. Constitution.
The New York City Police Department singled out Muslims for their religious beliefs, which cast “an unwarranted shadow of suspicion and stigma” on the plaintiffs, including mosques, student associations and Muslim-owned businesses, said a complaint filed today in federal court in Newark, New Jersey.
“Each plaintiff has suffered from the stigmatization that results from being singled out for surveillance on the basis of their religious beliefs,” according to the complaint. They sued to affirm that “individuals may not be singled out for intrusive investigation and pervasive surveillance simply because they profess a certain faith.”
The lawsuit follows a series of Associated Press reports that said the police department spied on mosques, businesses and worshipers in Newark and elsewhere in the state. New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa said May 24 that a three-month review showed “no evidence to date that NYPD’s activities in the state violated New Jersey civil or criminal laws.”
Chiesa also issued a directive saying his office would strengthen lines of communication with the NYPD over counter-terrorism investigations, establish formal notification procedures for surveillance by out-of-state police agencies working in New Jersey and set up a Muslim outreach committee.
Kate Ahlers, a spokeswoman for New York’s Law Department, said the city is awaiting formal service of the complaint.
“However, we affirm that the activity was lawful and was supported by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office,” Ahlers said in an e-mail.
New York police took photos and eavesdropped on conversations in Newark businesses owned by or frequented by Muslims, the Associated Press reported, citing a 60-page report that contained summaries of businesses and their clientele.
A San Francisco-based group, Muslim Advocates, filed the complaint on behalf of plaintiffs including the Council of Imams in New Jersey and Muslim Students Association of the U.S. & Canada Inc.
“These plaintiffs are ordinary citizens going about their lives who law enforcement spied on simply because of their faith,” Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, said in a statement.
“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,” Khera said.
NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have also defended the surveillance program as legal and constitutional. The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
In February, Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, said the Justice Department was reviewing several requests to examine the allegations. He said his office will continue its dialogue with New Jersey’s Arab-American and Muslim communities.
“We remain committed to protecting the safety of the people of New Jersey through aggressive counter-terrorism investigations without sacrificing the civil rights and liberties of our citizens,” Fishman said in a statement in February.
The complaint said the NYPD created a spying program after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “based on the mistaken and unconstitutional premise that Muslim religious identity is a legitimate criterion for selection of law-enforcement surveillance targets.”
While the program targeted mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, Muslim student groups and schools, it “does not undertake similar surveillance with respect to any other religious group,” according to the complaint.
The complaint asked a judge to declare the city’s actions unconstitutional, halt surveillance on the basis of religion, and order the expungement of all records of plaintiffs made based on “unlawful spying.” It also seeks “nominal damages” and attorney fees.
The case is Hassan v. City of New York, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).
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