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Handschu Review: Court Seeks Public Comments in Important Civil Liberties Case

Ann Schneider May 3, 2016

The ongoing debate about the proper balance between civil liberties and police powers continued April 19 when Judge Charles Haight of the Southern District of New York heard public comments over whether to approve a new class-action settlement in Handschu vs. the Bureau of Special Services

The class action which applies to ALL political activists in New York City, strengthens the 1985 and 2003 Handschu Guidelines in significant ways. For the first time there will be an explicit policy against investigations in which race, religion or ethnicity is a substantial or motivating factor. Also for the first time, undercover operations will not be undertaken unless there has been a determination by the NYPD Intelligence Bureau that the information sought “could not reasonably be obtained by less intrusive means.” 

If you are a New York City resident, you should avail yourself of the extension of time to May 26 to weigh in on whether or not the settlement is good enough.  At the request of some objectors to the settlement, Judge Haight granted another hearing date, June 1 at 10 a.m. at 500 Pearl Street. 

Long-time civil rights attorneys Jethro Eisenstein, Martin Stolar, Paul Chevigny, Franklin Siegel and Arthur Eisenberg. who brought the original Handschu suit in in 1971, negotiated the settlement.  As your rights may be affected, you should participate in the proceedings.  You can register to speak directly to Judge Haight by sending an e-mail with your name and address by May 26 to handschusettlement@gmail.comJudge Haight is interested in hearing  or reading your written comments, which you may also send to no later than May 26.

In his opening remarks, Judge Haight showed his sincere interest in the long-running case when he said he’d read “some harrowing stories” from those that suffered police intrusions.

Lawyers for the City also stood up to say they supported the settlement while denying any wrongdoing. 

Three very brave plaintiffs from a separate suit filed on behalf of Muslim residents of New York targeted by the police, testified on the 19th as to how they and their co-religionists had suffered.  Mohammad Elshinawy was a first-year college student when the surveillance began and had his fears confirmed ten years later when he found out his wedding had been videotaped by the NYPD.  Hamid Raza, Imam at Masjid Al-Ansar felt forced to purchase equipment to make recordings of his sermons in case a plant made misleading claims against him.  

Linda Sarsour, Executive Director of the Arab American Association of NY provided compelling testimony as to how she had “offered [former] Commissioner [Ray] Kelly to come in the front door”, but instead, he chose to come in the back door.

Ben Meyers gave thoughtful suggestions on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild’s Mass Defense Committee.  The Settlement is good and necessary he said, but it could be made more effective if the newly-added civilian member of the Handschu Committee could report to the Public Advocate, not just the Police Commissioner. He also noted that without explicit prohibitions on NYPD intelligence-gathering techniques, current technology like stingrays (which mimic cell phone towers and can capture metadata of those within range) “will prove irresistible when investigating non-terrorist activities.”

You can learn about the proposed modifications here:

Ann Schneider is a member of the board of the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. The opinions expressed in this article are her own.

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