By Maura O’Connor
Eight New Jersey Muslims filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday accusing the New York Police Department of violating their constitutional rights by singling them out because of their religion for an anti-terrorism intelligence program.
The lawsuit is the first to challenge the NYPD’s extensive surveillance of Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey. The police have filmed mosques, photographed license plates and surveyed schools, the lawsuit charged.
The legal action comes after the New Jersey attorney general’s office decided the NYPD’s intelligence program was legal.
“Since public officials have turned a blind eye towards bigotry, the victims have come forward to the courts as a last resort,” said Farhana Kerha, president of Muslim Advocates, a legal association. “We think Commissioner [Raymond] Kelly and his top leadership have gone too far, they’ve overreached.”
Paul Browne, the NYPD’s chief spokesman, responded Wednesday by citing the New Jersey attorney general’s report.
“NYPD activities in New Jersey were lawful, appropriate, and in keeping with efforts there, in New York, and around the world to prevent terrorists from returning here to kill more New Yorkers,” Browne said.
Some of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs are students and imams mentioned in police surveillance files. Others, such as Farhaj Hassan, attended mosques that were under surveillance but weren’t named specifically.
Hassan, a decorated specialist with the U.S. Army Reserves who completed a tour in Iraq, said he felt a duty as a soldier to join the lawsuit. “I am suppose to protect the constitution of the U.S.,” he said.
The suit seeks to prohibit the NYPD from entering New Jersey to spy on Muslims because of their religion. It also calls on the NYPD to expunge its surveillance files.
Muslim Advocates said it hopes to create a legal precedent that would outlaw similar surveillance programs in the country. “We want a declaratory judgment that it is unconstitutional,” said Glenn Baton, legal director of the organization.