City Challenged on Fingerprinting Protesters

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Tue Oct 5 07:49:02 PDT 2004


The New York Times

October 5, 2004

City Challenged on Fingerprinting Protesters

ince coming under fire for their handling of protesters arrested during the
Republican convention, Bloomberg administration officials have said that
sluggish fingerprint processing in Albany was a major cause of the long
delays in releasing detainees, although state officials have denied any

Now it looks as if much of the fingerprinting may not have been legal in
the first place. According to lawyers at the New York Civil Liberties
Union, the city may have violated state law by routinely fingerprinting
arrested protesters.

 In a letter sent yesterday to Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly,
officials of the organization wrote that although the law allowed the
police to fingerprint people charged with minor offenses in certain
circumstances, "this could not justify the routine fingerprinting of the
nearly 1,500 people reportedly arrested during the convention for minor

The officials, Donna Lieberman and Christopher Dunn, the group's executive
director and associate legal director respectively, wrote that state
criminal-procedure law defined narrow circumstances for fingerprinting when
the offenses are minor. Those circumstances are when the police cannot
establish the person's identity, when they suspect that the identification
supplied is not accurate, or when they suspect that there is an outstanding

Legal questions about the fingerprinting policy have come up before. At a
hearing in September over the city's treatment of arrested protesters,
Justice John Cataldo of State Supreme Court in Manhattan noted that the
city could have dispensed with the fingerprinting entirely as most of the
offenses were so minor that state law did not require it.

Ms. Lieberman and Mr. Dunn also wrote that they found the "blanket
fingerprinting" of people arrested at demonstrations troubling because "the
entry of fingerprints into law enforcement databases can have lifelong

 Normally, when a person is arrested and fingerprinted in New York, the
State Division of Criminal Justice Services checks the prints in its system
and sends them to the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well, state
officials said. Information about arrest records and outstanding warrants
is then sent back to the city's Police Department.

As a result, the lawyers wrote, they are "deeply troubled by the notion
that the N.Y.P.D. may have forced hundreds of political activists," as well
as "a number of innocent bystanders arrested during the convention, to
surrender their fingerprints for entry into state and federal databases."

Saying that they were prepared to sue the city if necessary, the lawyers
asked that any illegally obtained fingerprints held by the police, the
state or the F.B.I. be destroyed.

John Feinblatt, criminal justice coordinator for the Bloomberg
administration, defended the city's actions, saying the fingerprints were
automatically destroyed and therefore could not pose a threat to those
arrested in the future.

 "The normal procedure for violation arrests is to take fingerprints for
one purpose and one purpose only: to definitively establish who the person
is and whether he has a warrant or other law-enforcement hold," he said.
"After that the prints are destroyed and not made part of any permanent
record. That's exactly what was done with every violation during the
R.N.C., no more, no less."

Without commenting on whether the city had broken the law, he added, "In an
age of identity theft and high-quality fake ID's, fingerprints are the only
surefire way to establish who's in front of you." State and federal
officials said they did keep fingerprints from violation arrests.

 In the view of Mr. Dunn of the civil liberties union, though, destroying
the fingerprints would not remedy the fact that they were illegally taken.

"The practice has to stop," he said. "It's an unlawful practice. And more
importantly, we're skeptical that fingerprints that were sent to New York
State or the F.B.I. have been destroyed."

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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