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.