NY judge rules police need court order to access sealed arrests

Last Tuesday, a New York court found that the New York Police Department’s routine use and disclosure of sealed arrest information violates the state’s sealing statute.  The case, R.C. v. City of New York, concerns plaintiffs whose information the NYPD used or disclosed after their arrests terminated favorably in dismissals or acquittals, after prosecutors declined to prosecute, or after cases resulted in non-criminal violations.  In New York City, over 400,000 arrests—nearly half of all arrests—were sealed between 2014 and 2016.  The lawsuit, brought by The Bronx Defenders, seeks to enforce the sealing statute’s protection of those records.

New York’s sealing statute—codified at Criminal Procedure Law §§ 160.50 and 160.55—requires that courts, prosecutors, and law enforcement agencies “seal” records when a case is terminated in a person’s favor or results in a non-criminal violation.  A “sealed” record “shall . . . not [be] made available to any person or public or private agency.”  The sealing requirement applies to “all official records and papers . . . relating to the arrest or prosecution . . . on file with the division of criminal justice services, any court, police agency, or prosecutor’s office.”  In addition, the statute requires that photographs and fingerprints be destroyed or returned to the formerly accused.

Despite the plain text of the statute, the NYPD has maintained, used, and disclosed information that should have been sealed, destroyed, or returned.  It has maintained this information in massive interconnected databases, some of which, like the “Domain Awareness System,” are deployed in every police precinct, on every officer smartphone, and in every police vehicle tablet.  It has used information in later police activity, allowing detectives to access and view sealed arrest information when investigating crimes.  And it has disclosed information both to prosecutors and the press—most prominently, about the victims of police shootings.

In moving to dismiss the lawsuit, the NYPD urged the court to find lawful its own internal use of the sealed information.  It did not contest the suit’s claims relating to what the New York court described as its “routine and unlawful” disclosure of sealed information to media and other agencies.

The court found the sealing statute prohibits the NYPD from using sealed records without a court order for any purpose.  It rejected the NYPD’s argument that the statute allows its personnel to use sealed arrests however they want within the Department.  In so doing, the court looked to the plain text of the statute, which provides that “law enforcement agencies” can access and use sealed information only if they secure a court order after demonstrating that “justice requires that such records be made available.”  The court also dismissed a due process claim, holding that the sealing statute does not implicate a right to due process here.  The case will now proceed to discovery.

This is the third post in a series for CCRC’s non-conviction records project, a study of the public availability and use of non-conviction records – including arrests that are never charged, charges that are dismissed, deferred dispositions, and acquittals.

Avinash Samarth

Avinash Samarth is an attorney at the Bronx Defenders. He received his J.D. from Yale Law School, where he chaired the Clinical Student Board and the Yale Civil Rights Project, and served as a senior editor for the Yale Law and Policy Review, as well as an editor for the Yale Journal of Law and Technology.

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