Judge Rules NYPD Must Overhaul Its Systems To End Its Unlawful Use of Sealed Arrest Records

Ruling restores privacy and presumption of innocence to millions of New Yorkers 


Media Contact: Michael Paul Jackson, @mjackson@bronxdefenders.org  

NEW YORK — Today, a Manhattan judge ruled that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) must overhaul its technological systems to end its practice of illegally accessing and using sealed arrest records, restoring privacy and the presumption of innocence to millions of New Yorkers. 

The judge’s order – entered as part of a long-running class action lawsuit brought by The Bronx Defenders and co-counsel Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP – comes shortly after he ruled that the City was in violation of the decades-old sealing laws when it staged a publicity stunt in August by using sealed arrest records to smear the reputation of nearly a dozen New Yorkers.  

“The judge’s order will hopefully make sure no one ever has to go through what I did,” said R.C., one of the plaintiffs in the case who was arrested when the NYPD illegally used a sealed arrest photo of him in a photo array. “Everyone must have the right to their personal privacy, and so I’m happy the court is making the police finally change their systems and follow the law.”  

Sealing laws protect records related to arrest and prosecution when the arrest resolves in favor of the person accused, such as when a prosecutor dismisses charges or the person is acquitted. Under these laws, the police may not access or use sealed arrests unless they first obtain a court order showing that justice requires unsealing.   

Some key steps that the NYPD will be required to take include:   

  • Removing sealed information from predictive policing technologies, like Patternizr, a machine-learning algorithm. 
  • Prohibit the NYPD from using sealed arrests to label someone a recidivist. 
  • Creating technological mechanisms to bar officers from accessing sealed records without advance court permission.  

“Today’s decision ensures that the NYPD will no longer flout the law by using sealed arrest records to surveil, harass, and target people,” said Niji Jain, Senior Staff Attorney with the Impact Litigation Practice of The Bronx Defenders. “The legislature passed this law decades ago to ensure that New Yorkers are not forever haunted by an unproven accusation, especially people of color who are disproportionately harmed by overpolicing, and we’re glad the Court is finally giving force to these important protections.”  

Since filing the case in 2018, The Bronx Defenders and Cleary Gottlieb have shown that the department gives officers routine access to sealed records without court permission and uses those records to track, surveil, and publicly humiliate New Yorkers. 

The Court and class counsel will oversee the NYPD’s extensive reform process, which also requires the NYPD to submit periodic reports on its progress and results of audits on compliance. Ensuring the protection of sealed arrest records is vital to achieving the common goal of allowing New Yorkers with sealed arrest records to live their lives without fear of punishment or being subject to police surveillance based on private information.    

“We are pleased that the Court has ordered the NYPD to overhaul its practices and systems in order to prohibit access to sealed arrest records and safeguard the presumption of innocence for all New Yorkers,” said Michael Cinnamon, associate at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP.  “We look forward to continuing to work with The Bronx Defenders to secure for class members the full protection that they are entitled to under the law.