The New York City Police Department was backed into a legal corner after a state judge ruled that the department must respond to a public records request about its monitoring of Black Lives Matter protesters’ cell phones and social media activities.
State Supreme Court Justice Arlene Bluth sided with members of the Black activist group on Monday, rejecting the NYPD’s argument that releasing the information would compromise its counterterrorism and criminal investigations, the New York Times reported.
In 2017, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) filed a Freedom of Information Law request on behalf of Millions March NYC, a group that’s affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives.
The department initially rejected the request for information with the blanket statement that it could “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of those records, citing what’s known as a “Glomar response” that’s mostly used in national security surveillance cases, according to the NYCLU.
Bluth warned the department that it’s violating the law if the police used cell-site simulator technology and “cannot hide exposure of that fact through a Glomar response.”
The legal team representing the Black activists praised the judge’s ruling.
“Today the court confirmed that the NYPD cannot vastly expand the scope of the Glomar response to deny the public access to basic information regarding the tactics and technologies used by police to monitor First Amendment-protected political activity,” said NYCLU attorney Bobby Hodgson, in a statement.
It was unclear what the consequences would be if the NYPD violated the constitutional rights of the BLM activists.
The original request for information stemmed from a 2014 protest march against the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. During the demonstration, several activists experienced issues communicating with their cell phones. In some cases, cell phones shut down while some protesters were video recording during the march, while the messaging apps of some protests went haywire.
The activists suspected that the police were monitoring their cell phones with Stingrays, devices that mimic cell towers and intercept communications, the Times said.
This case comes against a 12-page FBI report in 2017 about groups the agency views as Black extremists. It claimed that Black activist organizations like BLM were targeting law enforcement agencies in response to the killing of unarmed Black men. Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied knowledge of the report when questioned by Black lawmakers.
The NYPD did not immediately respond to the judge’s ruling. It has 30 days to appeal the decision.