Skip to Content
The Cops

Court to NYPD: Stop Illegally Accessing Sealed Arrest Records

After years of litigation, a state judge has given the NYPD a timeline to clean up its act.

Eric Adams presents the “Worst of the Worst” report, later found to violate state law. (Ed Reed / Mayoral Photography Office)

The NYPD must end its decades-long violation of the state law governing sealed arrest records, according to a sweeping court order issued Wednesday in a long-running civil rights class action suit. 

The order confirms an earlier ruling in the case, which found that, despite its insistence to the contrary, the NYPD is bound by state law which forbids the accessing of sealed arrest records without a court order. But it also spells out the steps the NYPD must take to overhaul decades of practice and a vast database architecture premised on the widespread violation of that law, and sets deadlines for the department to come into compliance.

Even after the court's ruling that the department was violating state law, the NYPD's lawyers had sought to preserve much of the department's use of the sealed records, including the ability to continue to feed them into its predictive policing computer models, such as Patternizr, a machine-learning algorithm, trained on large volumes of arrest data, that suggests possible investigative targets. Plaintiffs in the class action suit had argued that even anonymized algorithms trained on sealed arrest data violate both the letter and the spirit of the law.

Wednesday's order forbids the NYPD from using databases or predictive technologies trained on data that includes sealed arrests. 

There are some instances in which the law permits the NYPD to access sealed arrests: when processing gun license applications or reporting parole violations, and in compiling mandated aggregate reports. Under the order, the NYPD will need to identify a list of department employees who are permitted to access sealed arrest information for non-investigative purposes. The department will have to issue quarterly reports on this list and whether the people on it are accessing sealed arrests for legally permitted reasons. It will also have to submit annual reports to the court for the next five years describing its compliance with the law and the court order.

The order also bars the NYPD from labeling someone a recidivist based on sealed arrests, from sharing sealed arrest information with the press, and from counting sealed arrests when publicizing the number of times someone has been arrested, all longstanding practices of the NYPD, most recently attracting controversy last summer, when Mayor Eric Adams, as part of a press stunt to discredit bail reform, commissioned and publicized an NYPD report entitled "The Worst of the Worst" which the court found violated state law.

Whether the NYPD will accept today's decision or appeal it remains to be seen. The NYPD directed questions to the New York City Law Department. Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesperson for the Law Department, told Hell Gate, "We are carefully reviewing this detailed court order and evaluating the City’s legal options."

Regardless of whether the NYPD appeals the ruling, says Niji Jain, an attorney with the Bronx Defenders who litigated the case for the plaintiffs, there is more work to be done. "The City’s conduct over the past 40 years, and particularly for the life of the case, have raised serious doubts about whether they intend to comply with this law," she said. "It’s been a major effort over five years to get this court order, and it’s going to be a major effort over the coming years to make sure they come into compliance. The judge and class counsel are going to need to hold the City’s feet to the fire on this."

Already a user?Log in

Thanks for reading!

Give us your email address to keep reading two more articles for free

See all subscription options

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Hell Gate

See all posts