Professional Troublemaker ®

 Jonathan Corbett, Civil Rights Attorney



NYPD Pays $18M to Settle 2004 RNC Protest Arrests

I grew up with a grandfather who was a retired police captain. Needless to say, respect for police officers was a highlight of my upbringing, and until I moved away from the small town in which I grew up, I never understood why people would feel uncomfortable in the presence of law enforcement.

RNC Protests in Union Square, 2004.  Cell phone camera quality wasn't quite what it is today. :)
RNC Protests in Union Square, 2004. Cell phone camera quality wasn’t quite what it is today. 🙂

In the summer of 2004, I went to some protests in Union Square, a small park in lower Manhattan near where I was living where political speech was (and still is) a mainstay. I didn’t go to protest — if anything, my 20-year-old self thought it would be more entertaining to watch the crazy hippies, liberals, and even communists ranting on a megaphone about how much they hate George W. Bush. It was, in fact, the first time I met someone who would openly and happily proclaim they were a communist. All very strange to me at the time.

The protesters would be out there almost daily, and I’d probably see them a few times a week. Once in a while, a few cops would come and confiscate a megaphone. You see, use of a “sound amplification device” without a permit is against the law in New York City, and I’ll let you guess who issues the permits. But, everything was always peaceful, and the protesters would continue with just their voices and would collect donations to go buy a new megaphone, which they invariably did, sometimes same day.

The peaceful atmosphere ended as the Republican National Committee’s conference began. There weren’t really that many more protesters than usual in Union Square, but the police presence rapidly grew. Eventually, a few dozen officers lined up and began arresting the people who were speaking. People were thrown to the ground, injured, as they resisted being arrested for doing nothing more than speaking. These protesters were doing nothing that they hadn’t been doing there for the months (really, years) prior, but with the RNC in town, the order was out: protesters go to jail. As they took away the organizers, a friend of mine yelled at the police to stop, at which point they grabbed her and took her away too. My friend, a 20-year-old slender young woman from upstate Privilegeville, NY, was charged with “jumping on an officer’s back.”

At least 2 video cameras captured the incident showing that she did no such thing, and 4 witnesses, including myself, came forward to say that the charge was fabricated. The DA’s office, however, was instructed to prosecute all protesters no matter what, and they took the matter to trial, forcing this girl to endure the possibility of a 1 year prison sentence for doing nothing more than yelling at a cop. Thankfully, a jury deliberated for about 20 minutes before returning a unanimous “not guilty” verdict.

The city fought against over 400 individual lawsuits, plus one class-action lawsuit with another 1,200 victims, by protesters who were arrested and beat their charges (or were never charged). Think about that for a second: during a few weeks of a convention, the city wrongfully arrested over 1,600 people. It took 10 years, but they have finally been given justice: an $18 million settlement has been reached.

The incidents during the RNC cost the city (really, the taxpayers) a huge sum of money. But it also cost them my respect. It’s a sad day when you learn that your government really isn’t there to protect you.

“Change We Can Believe In” Donation Drive

ChangeIn October, I posted that I wouldn’t be pursuing an appeal in my case against stop and frisk, which was dismissed on the theory that I couldn’t prove that the 4 plainclothes cops who stopped and frisked me were actually real police officers (they might have been, you know, just ordinary citizens playing a game!). I think the ruling was wrong, but I felt that I couldn’t effectively pursue that appeal in addition to the two actions I have against the TSA, which are more important to me, especially in light of the advances against stop and frisk made by others this year. Each of these cases I take on generate hundreds of pages of complex legal documents, monetary costs, and stress — all totally worth it, by the way.

As a result, the NYPD asked for, and received, a judgment for their costs in arguing the absurd, over my objections and despite their request for costs being after the deadline set by federal rules. They don’t get attorney’s fees, but court reporting fees, copies, etc., resulted in a bill for $820.15.

I’d like to send them this $820.15 in coins, and I’d like your help! If you have a coin jar that you’ve been filling and would like to use it to make a statement, mail it my way. The USPS Small Flat Rate Box would fit well over $100 in coins and costs $5.80 — potentially less than CoinStar would charge you to count them (no worries, I have access to a free coin counter). If you don’t have coins sitting around, I’d be happy to turn your PayPal, Bitcoin, or check donation into pennies, nickles, dimes, and quarters on your behalf. Here’s how:

  • Coins: Mail to Jonathan Corbett, 228 Park Ave. S. #86952, New York, NY 10003
  • PayPal: Donate here!
  • Bitcoin: 15ftA2938sp7Mnsi8U7wYVmEtd4BRbFnkT
  • Check: Make out to Jonathan Corbett and mail to the address above

Once I get the coins together, I shall assemble them into a sculpture that expresses my feelings towards the NYPD and send it their way. I’ll, of course, post a picture. This, my friends, is change that we can believe in! 😀 Thank you in advance for your support and for helping me to not only continue to fight against abusive governments in court, but also to help me make this special message to the NYPD.

NYPD Shoots at Unarmed Man, Hits Bystanders, Charges Man With the Shooting

You can’t make this stuff up.

The New York Times reports that last September, NYPD officers in Times Square came across a mentally disturbed man. When the man reached into his pocket, the cops assumed he was going for a gun (despite it being impossible for the man to have a gun, since guns are illegal in NYC!) and shot at him 3 times. All three shots missed, and two of them hit bystanders. The man was subdued with a Taser and found to have no weapons at all.

Yesterday, it was announced that the man was indicted for assaulting the two bystanders on the theory that he was responsible for the cops being “forced” to shoot at him and injure other people.

The Assistant District Attorney responsible for this assholery is Shannon Lucey. If you’d like to express your outrage, the DA’s office has joined the 21st century and accepts e-mails. No, just kidding, you’ll have to call them (preferably with a rotary phone).

Federal Judge: Suit to Stop NYPD Street Body Scanners Must Wait

nypdscanOn January 28th of this year, I filed the first and only lawsuit against the NYPD’s testing and planned implementation of “street body scanners” — terahertz imaging devices designed to allow cops to peer under the clothes of unsuspecting passersby on the street for guns. In addition to highlighting New York’s longstanding disrespect for the Second Amendment by assuming that anyone bearing arms must be doing so illegally, this tool plainly ignores the Fourth Amendment’s requirement, made clear in Terry v. Ohio, that searches must have cause. By checking underneath the clothing of the public at random, the NYPD proposes to conduct the most widespread and general search ever demanded (outside of the airport checkpoint, of course).

U.S. District Judge Paul G. Gardephe ruled today, however, that the suit must wait because the immanency and effects of the NYPD’s proposed scanner use are, at this time, uncertain and speculative. This issue touches a gray area where, on the one hand, courts are allowed to protect the people from imminent loss of liberty, they must balance this against the constitutional requirement that only a live controversy may be reviewed.

The facts of this matter are that: 1) the NYPD has paid millions of dollars to fund the development of these devices, 2) the NYPD has procured at least one of these devices, and 3) NYPD Commissioner Kelly has stated his intent to begin use of the devices as soon as possible.

I think reasonable people could disagree as to whether this constitutes a situation where a constitutional injury is imminent, and it is, of course, no surprise that any benefit of the doubt be sent the government’s way by a federal judge. As of now, I don’t plan on appealing this ruling, but instead watching for the first sign that the NYPD has brought these machines into public, at which point I will move to re-open the case. Let the NYPD be on notice: if you start to scan the public, you will be sued on Day 1.

Corbett v. City of New York II – Dismissed (.pdf)

A Reminder That Stop-And-Frisk Is Wrong Even If Applied Equally to All Races

You’ve probably seen in the news that last week, a federal judge ruled that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program is unconstitutional. Naturally, I couldn’t agree more. Seven out of eight people stopped under this program were found to be doing absolutely nothing unlawful. And, while the legal justification for stop-and-frisk is officer safety (that is, to find a gun on someone before they use it against the cop making the stop), not to search for general evidence of criminality (for example, to find drugs), 79 out of 80 stopped were not found to have a weapon. That is to say that the police were wrong in their motive for a stop 98.75% of the time.

I see a lot of focus in the media regarding this program being unconstitutional because it was disproportionately applied to racial minorities. This is true, and despite Bloomberg and Kelly’s claims that the inequality is due to the fact that more crime happens in “neighborhoods of color,” studies have shown that 1) even after accounting for the fact that black neighborhoods have more crime than white neighborhoods, the program is *still* disproportional based on race, and 2) blacks who live in white neighborhoods were more likely to be stopped than their white neighbors.

However, I feel like the intense focus on the NYPD’s racism, despite being well-deserved, masks the fact that even if the NYPD were to cure itself of its xenophobia and apply stop-and-frisk equally among all races, the NYPD’s behavior is still unconstitutional, as the judge also ruled. In order to stop someone, an officer must have reasonable suspicion that the person is committing a crime. In order to frisk someone (assuming the officer does not have enough evidence to make an arrest), he must have reason to believe that the person is armed and dangerous (officer safety, remember?). However, far, far too often, the officers have neither of these. Common “reasons” listed on stop-and-frisk paperwork for the searches include “furtive movements,” presence in a “high-crime area,” “suspicious bulge,” and other nonsense that is not indicative of crime or guns, but, quite simply, allows officers to search whomever they want (a bulge can be anything, presence in a bad neighborhood doesn’t indicate you’re committing a crime, and frankly but with respect to those intelligent NYPD officers who do take their job seriously, I would love to see a study done on how many NYPD officers even know what the word “furtive” means). The number of lives Bloomberg and Kelly opine have been saved are also no justification. Those numbers are about as verifiable as the NSA’s count of terrorists stopped by domestic spying or the TSA’s assertion that touching your junk prevents airplanes from being blown out of the sky, and they are also entirely irrelevant: unconstitutional practices are still unconstitutional even if they save lives. The police have an obligation to protect society and do so without trampling our liberties. These two prongs are neither mutually exclusive nor optional.

As one of the ~60,000 caucasian victims of NYPD stop-and frisk in 2011, I would hate to see reforms center around how to apply this unconstitutional, ineffective practice equally. It shouldn’t be applied at all, absent what the U.S. Supreme Court set out in Terry v. Ohio: reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed, and specific reasons to think that the particular individual poses a threat to the officer’s safety unless the search were conducted.

Judge Finds Systemic Stop-and-Frisk Abuse, Orders NYPD Officers to Wear Cameras, Change Policy

In a resounding blow to NYPD’s stop-and-frisk, United States District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin has found that the NYPD has committed widespread, systemic abuse of the rights of the people by detaining and searching them without reasonable suspicion.

I skimmed through as much of the 237 page decision as possible before writing, and Judge Scheindlin means business. She appointed an independent monitor to guide the city through adjusting its policies and training to ensure that these violations do not continue, and even went as far as ordering:

… the NYPD to institute a pilot project in which bodyworn cameras will be worn for a one-year period by officers on patrol in one precinct per borough — specifically the precinct with the highest number of stops during 2012.

Very much looking forward to the implementation of the judge’s orders

City v. Floyd – Opinion (.pdf) (the Court’s finding that the NYPD broke the law)
City v. Floyd – Order (the Court’s remedy for the NYPD’s lawbreaking)

Armed Off-Duty NYPD Officer Drinking Shots in Bar, On-Duty Cops Say Perfectly Legal

Armed NYPD Officer Drinking[Update – NYPD IA has told me that their initial investigation has led them to believe that this was a New York State Trooper, not an NYPD officer. This does not change the nature of my concerns, but I feel it is appropriate to place the blame on the proper party.]

Last night, I was in an East Village bar when I noticed that a man was walking around with a full-sized semi-automatic handgun sticking out of his waistband. The man was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and made no attempt to hide his weapon. I assumed he was a cop based on the way he looked (style of dress, hair, posture) and the fact that the staff seemed unalarmed — not to mention the fact that citizens sure are sure as hell not allowed to open-carry, let alone concealed carry, in NYC. I wasn’t going to say anything until the guy started downing shots.

In Florida, it’s certainly illegal for a cop to pound shots in a bar while open-carrying, and I figured in New York City, which has the strictest gun laws in the country, the same would be true. I placed a 911 call, and the operator seemed unclear as to why I was calling. She brought Internal Affairs on the line, who took the call seriously and asked her to dispatch a supervisor from the local precinct, which was 0.2 miles away. Five minutes later, still no cops, so I called the local precinct directly to ask if they had sent anyone. The operator transfers me to another cop who pretends not to be able to hear me and says, “You better find some better reception before you call back this number.” Finally, almost 10 minutes later, four officers (but no supervisor) show up and basically tell me that there is no legal issue with having a cop, open-carrying a firearm, in a bar, drinking alcohol.

Needless to say, I’ll be following up with IA and the NYPD’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, and I’m not ruling out legal action. The definition of civil assault is “an act that causes a ‘reasonable apprehension’ of immediate harm or offensive contact to the victim’s person.” Would a reasonable person have an apprehension of harm based merely on the presence of a man openly carrying a firearm while doing shots? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Some “Light Reading” from the TSA, Some Denied Reading from the NYPD

Corbett v. TSA Administrative RecordMy fight against the TSA’s nude body scanners is approaching the deadline for briefs (in the Court of Appeals, the main briefs are, essentially, the entirety of your case). Pictured here is the “administrative record” as filed by the TSA. Some of it is public record (and will be posted here in full when I have a chance to scan it), other parts are claimed to be secret for various reasons (the release of which will be fought for in court at the appropriate time), and some parts are redacted (as if anything the TSA does would actually dissuade a terrorist). It totals about 1,600 pages (still about 30% shorter than ObamaCare!), and I’ll be asking for a time extension shortly to allow me a full opportunity to comb through each and every page.

My other three suits (illegal detention at FLL, NYPD stop-and-frisk, and NYPD street body scanners) are still awaiting rulings on dispositive motions, as they have been since April. I have no idea why these are going so slowly — the issues presented are hotly debated but not terribly complex.

nofoiaIn other news, I sent the NYPD a public records request a few weeks ago on a matter completely unrelated to my lawsuits (I asked for information regarding how they determine whether to accept or reject pistol permit applications). The NYPD has a “FOIL Unit” that is a part of its “Legal Bureau,” which is where the request was sent. I got back a letter stating that they don’t have the records, but that “NYPD – License Division” may have them. So, essentially, the NYPD asks for records requests to be sent to a specialized department that, obviously, doesn’t have the records in their office and refuses to go and get the records. I’m presently awaiting a callback from Lt. Mantellino to explain why he feels that this run-around is in any way legal.

It’s a little TOO quiet…

It’s now been a full month since I’ve seen the familiar “Activity in Case…” e-mails that the federal court system sends to litigants registered for electronic filing. Considering I have four cases open in four different courts, it’s the first time I’ve had a month of quiet since 2011. This gives me a little time to write my comment for the TSA’s public rulemaking regarding nude body scanners (due by June 24th, 2013 — no legal experience required, just let the TSA know how you feel!) and my appeal that is inevitable regarding (in largest part) U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard’s decision that TSA screeners enjoy qualified immunity for unlawful searches even when they know they intentionally continue their search beyond what is necessary to find weapons.

So, here’s where we are right now:

I have this sneaking suspicion that I will shortly be innundated with rulings and legal documents to write. The calm before the storm… 😉

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