Using NYPD Warrant Squads to Monitor Protesters May Violate Constitution: Experts

Friday, May 04, 2012

NYPD Officers at Zuccotti Park. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Additional Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are coming forward to allege they were targeted by police officers executing old bench warrants for minor violations in order to collect intelligence about the May Day protests this week.

Executing old warrants -- no matter how minor -- is legal.  But legal experts say the tactic becomes illegal if it is done solely to investigate political activity.

The half-dozen or so stories  fit a pattern: each individual was approached and questioned by officers who said they were picking up people on arrest warrants for low-level, non-criminal violations, such as public urination, walking around with an open container of alcohol or biking on a sidewalk. These warrants can stay open for years.

Court officials say there are more than 1 million bench warrants currently open for these types of violations in New York City.  But this week, squads of police officers decided to act on a few of them.  

Swarmed and Plucked From the Street

Officers visited up to six homes the day before the May 1 protests, but Shawn Carrié found himself getting questioned the evening of the protest. He was coordinating all internal communications for the Occupy movement on May Day. At about 9 p.m., he was walking near Wall Street, heading home.

“And somebody comes up to me and says, ‘Shawn?’  And just grabs my arm and nine dudes surround me,” said Carrié.

He said nine plain clothes officers wearing NYPD jackets asked if he had anything sharp in his pockets.  He shook his head no. He said they started pulling possessions out of his clothes, including his cell phone, his wallet and keys.  

Within seconds, he said, they bound his hands with zip ties, but didn't explain why. Then the officers placed him in a red van waiting nearby that was marked with an NYPD sticker, he said.

When he arrived at Police Headquarters in Lower Manhattan, Carrié said there were several other people waiting to be processed, but he skipped ahead of them. He said he police quickly led him to a room filled with boxes of files where he was alone, except for one officer staring at him from a table.

“And he said, ‘Go ahead, sit down,’” said Carrié.  “He asked me, ‘Do you know why you’re here?’” said Carrié.  “And he said, ‘Tell me about what you were doing today.’”

Carrié said he didn’t say anything. The NYPD declined to comment, and would not verify Carrie’s account of events.   

He noticed the officer’s badge number. WNYC traced that number to a detective within the NYPD's Intelligence Division.  A sergeant who signed the property voucher form issued to Carrié for his confiscated property identified himself on the document as another member of the Intelligence Division.  

Carrié said he spent the next 13 hours in jail.  

He said he was placed alone in a cell. It’s unclear why he was isolated from the holding pen where several individuals typically wait together to see a judge.

He found out at court the next day that he had been arrested because of two open warrants from 2007 for violations related to a public urination incident.

When his lawyer read the warrants, it turned out they belonged to a different Shawn Carrié, who had a different birth date and a different address.  But now this Shawn Carrié — a name he said is not his given name and one he only uses for marches — has to go to trial next month to fight what he says are false charges.  

“Scared to Freely Communicate”

Carrié said, regardless of the infraction, the alleged practice of using old warrants as a pretext for questioning people about their political activity can chill speech.  

“It’s making people scared to freely communicate, and making them feel like they're watched.  ‘Even if you're not doing anything wrong, we're watching,’” he said.

Another individual whom officers questioned this week agrees an atmosphere of intimidation is created when police officers make it known they’re focusing their attention around individuals involved in Occupy Wall Street organizing.

Zach Dempster was woken up at 6:15 a.m. the morning before May Day when six officers barged into his living room and said they had an open container warrant for his roommate Joseph Ryan.

Dempster says even though his roommate was the one getting arrested, an officer led him into his bedroom to question him about his plans for the next day.  

“It was fairly intimidating.  I mean, I somehow presumed at that moment that I was just going to be arrested,” said Dempster, who did not end up getting arrested.  

It’s unclear how police found the names of protesters or why certain members appear to have been targeted.

Legitimate Police Work or Running Afoul of the First Amendment?

On Thursday, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told WNYC he stands by using warrant squads to get intelligence on Occupy Wall Street.

“We do what we have to do to protect the city and obviously that is a legitimate police function,” said Kelly.

But some legal experts say the tactics may not be legitimate.

Jethro Eisenstein, who is one of the plaintiffs lawyers in the long-running Handshu case, which set up guidelines for how the NYPD can monitor political groups, said the Handshu rules require the NYPD to follow the U.S Constitution with a heightened awareness.  

He said under a U.S. Supreme Court case, Mt. Healthy City School District Board of Education v. Doyle, the NYPD has to show that it would have executed these bench warrants even if these particular individuals were not involved in Occupy Wall Street protests.  

In other words, said Eisenstein, the police could be violating the First Amendment if they arrest someone on a bench warrant solely because they want to question him about his political organizing.

“Since these are the kind of warrants that typically sit for years and years, I think it's fair to say that they wouldn't have done it but for their desire to question these people about their First Amendment activities,” Eisenstein said.  

Members of the police department reportedly use the strategy when crowd control at events is a concern.  But that doesn't explain why Carrié was picked up on May Day after the marches had been winding down.

The property voucher form, the document Shawn Carrié will have to submit to collect the belongings that were confiscated during his arrest, shows two officers from the NYPD’s Intelligence Division processed Carrié’s arrest.

Shawn Carrie NYPD Property Voucher p2

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Comments [20]

Wildboer from NJ

A few Occupy protesters are being targeted by police? How dare they abuse these bench warrants, it's a waste of valuable time that could be spent stopping and frisking blacks without reasonable suspicion! I mean, why interrogate a protester when you could be incarcerating a minority for minding their own business? It's oh so upsetting...

May. 08 2012 04:47 PM
Michael from paying taxes everyday of the year.

When did planned vandalism by the protesters become protected by the first admendment? If OWS respected the neighborhood at Zuccotti Park and maintained a healthy campsite they would still be at the park.

May. 07 2012 10:13 AM
Steven from Bk

I don't understand something: if a person has a warrant, and she is arrested for it, and the police ask her about any criminal acts being planned for May Day, then why aren't activists grateful that the police are trying to keep the criminal element out of these protests? We saw all of the crime and violence on the West Coast; May Day in NYC was only marred by a little of it. Seems like the NYPD did a good job of keeping the message on political expression and not the acts of vandalism and violence that some wanted to stage as a distraction.

The way I see it, Chang is telling a sory about a police department defending First Amendment rights, but our bias prevents us from seeing it that way.

May. 05 2012 08:03 PM

very informative. just like any other movement, the Occupy movement has probably been infiltrated by spies and informants.

May. 05 2012 12:55 PM
Wesley Henderson from Oklahoma

So, by the logic of the NYPD, I'm married to a woman named Alyson, so that means I'm also married to you, and any other Alyson/Allison/Alison/Alisson etc., because, "Hey, that's close enough, and I'm getting something out of it."

May. 05 2012 10:54 AM
pete619 from Out of town

If the authorities would just use one tenth of the time, money and effort they are using to suppress dissent to actually enforce the banking laws, the protests wouldn't be necessary.

May. 05 2012 08:08 AM
Sue Basko

Great article! You got the facts, the sentiment, and the law. Bravo! These police acts are illegal and you have shown this succinctly but surely. Thanks!

May. 05 2012 12:53 AM
Patt Reid

No shit!
The Fascists are here. It's all over but the shouting.

May. 04 2012 06:15 PM
Bernard Gurman from US

If I didn't know better (HA!) I would think we were talking about a movie about an "Eastern block" country during the Red Scare days. This can't be real. In the US? I give up.

May. 04 2012 05:24 PM
Ima Freeman

Of course we should be expected to surrender our liberty in order to enjoy it.
Isn't that what they teach in school these days?

The real threat to this nation of ours isn't some rag tag group of terrorists, threatening to blow people up.

It's the jack boots that are threatening your freedom and liberty unless you do exactly what you're told to do, all for your protection.

The last bastion of freedom on this lump of iron and rock we call earth is slowly dying, and it's root cause is apathy.

If we lose it, we are to blame.

May. 04 2012 05:16 PM
George Ronald Adkisson

example: In Long Beach California...the permissible number of individuals allowed in a city park appeared to be 40 without a permit. (permit to picnic) The police used this number to enter and search everyone and make arrests.
The posted signs excused the police from being prosecuted ... even though every individual walked in on their own accord and not together as a group.
That happened during George W. Bush's tenure in the White House...and with his knowledge.

May. 04 2012 04:16 PM
Dan Williams from Virginia

Good article but there is a serious error in the story. Several times the article revers to "police officers". The correct term is "lawless mafia goons". Please make the correction. Thanks.

May. 04 2012 04:14 PM
thehipi from Kansas City, MO

I hope they sue. To quote a Bush, "This aggression cannot stand."

May. 04 2012 03:24 PM
Benjamin Button from Heaven

Those who would give up liberty for a little security deserve neither liberty nor security. Do you know who said that? I'll give you a hint, Tea Party members sometimes dress like him.

May. 04 2012 02:11 PM


May. 04 2012 01:14 PM
not my name

hey "john from office" how ironic that you get on someone for not using their real name, or is "from" your middle name and your last is "office", ppl don't use their real names for a number of reasons, including not wanting some crazy who posts on blogs to track them down. As for the warrant, perhaps you missed it but the warrent is not for the person who was arrested. the person who was arrested did nothing wrong and has no open warrants. duh

May. 04 2012 12:09 PM
JEM from Brooklyn

You should block out the guy's address ...

May. 04 2012 11:51 AM

There is nothing illegal about using pseudonyms. People do it every day for a variety of reason. Should authors who write under pen names be arrested? Should politicos who express contrary ideas be banned from pseudonyms? Should actors not be allowed to use stage names?

If warrants are created and held for the sole purpose of suppressing 1st amendment protected speech, which it clearly was here, then the NYPD has violated constitutionally protected rights.

May. 04 2012 11:29 AM

Wait, this is news? Haven't we learned by now that it's completely acceptable to violate the Constitution in order to protect our liberty and the values upon which this great country of ours was founded?

May. 04 2012 11:28 AM
john from office

So we are to feel bad for a person who uses a false name?? Why does he do this if it is not to hide who he is.

The warrents exist, they are not false. It is called law enforcement. No one wants the chaos of Oakland or Athens here.

May. 04 2012 11:16 AM

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