“Until today, the NYPD has been using private information from sealed arrests in over a dozen of their interconnected surveillance databases, and has trained its officers that it is okay to violate the law,” said Niji Jain, an attorney at the Bronx Defenders.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The Bronx Defenders’ yearslong class action suit against the NYPD’s use of sealed arrest records took a critical turn on Monday, when a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled that the police department could not instruct its personnel to use such records without a court order.

Right now, Judge Lyle E. Frank wrote in the Sept. 27 order, an estimated 800 NYPD officers have access to the more than 3.5 million records belonging to New Yorkers whose criminal charges were ultimately dismissed.

The records—which can only legally be accessed by a court order, according to a 1976 state law—are kept in at least 14 different NYPD databases, attorneys at the Bronx Defenders said. In police training materials reviewed by the legal defense group, the NYPD instructs officers to use the sealed information, the lawyers said.

As a result of the Monday decision, the NYPD will be required to inform personnel that they may not access and use sealed arrest information without a court order. It also prompts the agency to declassify and publicly release NYPD training materials on the practice that were obtained by the Bronx Defenders in discovery.

Police officials “freely admit that their prior training regarding the sealing of records was contrary to law,” Judge Frank wrote. “As the NYPD did not properly train as to the sealing statutes before, the best way to ensure this conduct is not repeated is for this Court to issue an order enjoining such future conduct.”

Put simply, “until today, the NYPD has been using private information from sealed arrests in over a dozen of their interconnected surveillance databases, and has trained its officers that it is okay to violate the law,” said Niji Jain, an attorney at the Bronx Defenders. “Now that the court has issued this sweeping ruling, officers will be cut off from that kind of access, so that the sealed information remains private as the law requires.”

A police department spokesperson, responding to questions from City Limits, said the agency is “reviewing the judge’s decision and exploring our legal options.”

In an op-ed published on Monday in the New York Daily News, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea argued that the lawsuit was a “serious setback for public safety.”

“What is taking place today is that a handful of plaintiffs want to push the courts to stretch the bounds of the original intent of the sealing laws far beyond what anyone contemplated when the law was passed in 1976,” Shea wrote, claiming that police officers would be blindfolded by the change to its current practice.

“If the city loses this lawsuit, all these sealed records could become completely invisible to police,” he added. “We wouldn’t even be able to know they exist.”

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