Civil Rights Clinic scores victory for all New York City straphangers

A recent ruling by a magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York constitutes a big civil liberties win for NYU Law’s Civil Rights Clinic. Supervised by Professor Claudia Angelos and working with the New York Civil Liberties Union, clinic students took on a case whose outcome affects everyone riding New York City public transit.

Claudia AngelosIn August 2010, train enthusiast Steve Barry was taking pictures of a train in a subway station when a police officer erroneously told Barry and his friend that they could not take photographs on Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) property. When Barry challenged that notion, the officer asked for his identification. Barry told him he was not required to show ID since he had done nothing wrong. He was subsequently handcuffed and interrogated by a group of officers. Both Barry and his friend were charged for unauthorized photography, and Barry was also charged for not producing ID.

The Civil Rights Clinic took up the case in Fall 2011. Students Andrew Avorn ’12, Timothy-Taylor Hurley ’12, and Ella Spottswood ’13 saw the case through the discovery phase to the motion phase, undertaking extensive research and proceeding to draft and file a complaint, appear in court, defend the deposition of their clients, and take depositions from the police officers involved.
“It really felt like we were working on behalf of our clients for every single piece of it,” said Spottswood. “We’re booking the room, we’re calling the lawyers, we’re checking the times, we’re getting our clients there.” The students succeeded in settling the photography case against the city, which confessed its error (such photography is perfectly legal) and allowed judgment to be taken against it on that claim.

The second issue in the case involved the MTA’s little-known regulation requiring passengers to carry ID at all times and produce it when asked, or else face arrest. “The stunning surprise is that this regulation existed in the first place,” said Angelos, adding that some 6,000 people have been arrested in the past several years for not having ID. “It’s something that I think the millions of people who ride the transit system every day are blithely unaware of.  And then of course there’s the substance of it. If that’s right, what kind of world are we living in, and under what circumstances are the police choosing to arrest people for not carrying their papers with them? It seemed to us so intuitively wrong that you should have to carry ID to take a bus.” Ultimately, the court struck down the ID rule as unconstitutionally vague.

In a Huffington Post editorial published after the ruling, Avorn said, “We don’t live in a country where the government can approach a citizen, demand ‘Your papers, please’ and arrest anyone who doesn’t comply.... Thanks to one courageous man who chose to prove his rights, we can more easily maintain our anonymity from the government without getting arrested. But criminals beware: if you commit an actual crime, you still have to identify yourself.” He added that law-abiding citizens, however, “have gained the right to be strangers on the train.”

Angelos revealed that the Civil Rights Clinic is currently working on two more cases involving arrest for simply taking pictures. Although the New York City Police Department has taken steps to let its officers know that photography is perfectly legal on MTA property and elsewhere, problems persist. The issue originated in the aftermath of 9/11, Angelos explained, with the arrests of individuals photographing everyday infrastructure such as bridges and subway stations. That phenomenon, coupled with increasingly ubiquitous image-capture technology, has created a prominent dilemma, and Angelos vows that the clinic will continue to address it.

In the meantime, though, she and her students are savoring their newest victory.  “Every single one of those students, individually and collaboratively, did lawyering work that would make any lawyer proud,” said Angelos.

Working on the case was an invaluable education for Spottswood. “It was especially cool to me in this decision to see the depositions we took actually quoted by the judge,” she said. “The judge put a lot of thought into this decision. It said essentially everything that we could possibly have hoped for it to say.”

Posted on April 8, 2013