The American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union and other legal organizations filed a lawsuit against the city today on behalf of New Yorkers who say they were targeted by the NYPD's Muslim surveillance program.
Attorneys bringing the lawsuit allege the the program is unconstitutional because it targets certain groups without cause.
"When a police department turns law-abiding people into suspects because they go to a mosque and not a church or synagogue, it violates our Constitution's guarantees of equality and religious freedom," said ACLU National Security Project director Hina Shamsi.
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This landmark lawsuit comes on the heels of a high-profile trial brought against the city over another controversial NYPD practice, stop-and-frisk, which lawyers opposing the city allege is being carried out in a manner that is similarly unconstitutional, targeting specific groups without reason.
That lawsuit was not calling for a complete end to stop-and-frisk, only changes to the way it is practiced.
Conversely, attorneys bringing this case against the city want the Muslim surveillance program to be shut down entirely, and ban any new religion-based surveillance "in the absence of individualized suspicion of criminal activity."
They are also moving for the records of all of the plaintiffs established as a result of the program to be wiped clean, and are pushing for a monitor over of the NYPD to ensure these demands are carried out.
One of the plaintiffs in this suit is a 20-year-old college sophomore in Brooklyn, Asad Dandia, who co-founded a student group called Muslims Giving Back.
The group was infiltrated by an FBI informant, according to the NYCLU, who went over to Dandia's house for dinner, met his parents and even once spent the night.
Once the informant revealed himself, the group lost their meeting location and saw a drop in donations and membership, Dandia said. He said the discovery caused him to change his behavior as well.
"I am constantly frightened," Dandia said. "What if I say the wrong thing?"
Another plaintiff is the spiritual leader at a Brooklyn mosque, Masjid Al-Ansar, which has reportedly been under surveillance by the NYPD since 2008.
Imam Hamid Hassan Raza lives with his wife and child in Brooklyn.
Raza said he has been visited by plainclothes officers on several occasions without reason, prompting him to stop discussing current events or mentioning any potentially controversial topics in his sermons and to urge congregants to do the same. He said attendance at the mosque has also dropped off because of the surveillance program.
"The surveillance program has prevented me from fulfilling my duty as an imam," Raza said. "I cannot believe this has happened in the country that I know and love."
The suit names the city of New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly as defendants, as well as Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen.
City attorney Celeste Koeleveld defended the Muslim surveillance program, citing the Boston Marathon bombing as evidence of "the critical importance of 'on-the-ground' research."
"Police need to be informed about where a terrorist may go while planning or what they may do after an attack, as the Boston Marathon bombing proved," Koeleveld said. "Cities cannot play catch-up in gathering intelligence about a terrorist threat."
The Boston Marathon bombing suspects were apprehended four days after the attack, in the culmination of a chase that resulted in the deaths of a security guard and one of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarvaev. The city and surrounding areas wereon lockdown as police pursued the second suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was eventually located in a boat in the backyard of a suburban home.
NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Paul Browne reported that this morning at a conference,Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis briefed a coalition of counterterrorism agencies on the Boston Marathon bombings.
"Commissioner Davis' briefing served as a reminder for law enforcement to remain vigilant against terrorist attacks, and the important of understanding where and how terrorists operate, whether directed from overseas or self-radicalized lone wolves operating locally," Browne said.
Browne also cited the federal Handshu guidelines, a set of rules that outlines the extent of the NYPD's allowable access in surveillance. The guidelines permit visiting any place or event open to the public and conducting internet research of publicly available content, including visiting forums that are open to the public. The NYPD is also allowed to "prepare general reports and assessments...for purposes of strategic or operational planning," he said, which he believes includes creating maps of specific neighborhoods.
He accused critics familiar with the guidelines of "intentionally obfuscating their meaning."
"Those criticisms, whether ill-informed or calculated, will not deter the NYPD from fully respecting the Constitution and protecting the public from those intent on killing more New Yorkers," Browne said.
Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat