A New Jersey bill to oversee out-of-state spying

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By: Dr. Aref Assaf

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By all measures, the decision made in May 2012, by NJ Attorney General, which concluded the massive multiyear spying by the NYPD on American Muslims did not violate any state laws, was a major setback for the presumption of innocence and equality before the law doctrines. Some, however, argue the AG’s decision should not have been viewed as a deliberate attempt to discriminate against Muslim citizens. Rather, it was a reasonable reading of the limits of existing laws, which do not clearly define the point at which NYPD’s actions would be illegal, if not improper at minimum. Thanks to an insightful lawmaker, a bill is going through the NJ Legislature, which attempts to address this matter. Thus far, it seems certain to pass.

The bill (A-2984) was introduced by Assemblyman Richard Manior, (D- Hudson). It “Sets forth certain reporting requirements when out-of-State law enforcement entities conduct counter-terrorism investigations within New Jersey.” Significantly, it allows prosecutors to get an injunction blocking an agency from conducting surveillance if it hasn’t complied with the notification requirements.

It requires out-of-state law enforcement entities to submit notice prior to conducting surveillance operations in the state to designated law enforcement entities, starting with the Attorney General all the way to the chief of the police department of targeted towns. It requires such details as the identity and qualifications of the law enforcement officers conducting the surveillance operation, the identity of the individual or group of individuals that will be under surveillance, the intended location of the surveillance operation and a statement providing the time period during which the surveillance operation will be conducted. Additionally, an out-of-state law enforcement entity is required to provide a statement of facts establishing the purpose of the surveillance activities and the type of information that may be obtained from surveillance.

The Attorney General may seek a temporary or permanent injunction in a summary proceeding in Superior Court if an out-of-state law enforcement agency does not comply with the notifications required under the bill. The bill empowers the Attorney General to seek a court order to prevent the performance of a surveillance operation or to require compliance with the provisions of the bill.

Appearing before the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee, Mr. Manior spoke of his experience as a detective for the Jersey City police department. “As a law enforcement officer, I can appreciate the importance of a surveillance operation, but not when conducted in secrecy and potentially in violation of the civil rights of our residents.”He continues, “If an out-of-state law enforcement agency finds it necessary to conduct surveillance in our state, then they must inform our law enforcement officials about it and justify the need for it, so our residents are protected from what, many who followed the NYPD surveillance debacle, felt amounted to racial and religious profiling.”

Although some would argue otherwise, the bill does not specifically demand that the request to spy in NJ is based on legally obtained warrants.Its main objective is the transparency of such activities between the respective law enforcement entities. It is more so a desire for the protection of the state’s jurisdictional sovereignty rather than the all-important prerequisite of individual or group rights. While notification between law enforcement agencies is an admirable goal, one strongly defended and demanded by Governor Chris Christie in his public criticism of the NYPD, the bill falls short of setting the legal foundation of substantive aspects of future surveillance activities in NJ. New Jersey should not be engaged in illegal albeit well-coordinated spying activities. Spying on people simply because of their faith or ethnicity is illegal, counterproductive and portends a serious blow to the rights of privacy and liberty. As a law enforcement member, Assemblyman Manior, know that in a court of law, illegally obtained evidence is inadmissible. Failing this provision, New Jersey will be complicit in the violation of the civil rights of the affected individuals or communities. Our nation will be safe only when the rights of citizens are preserved, not trashed under the guise of perceived or even real national security threats. The constant objective of law enforcement and lawmakers must remain the delicate balance between liberty and security.

The NYPD spying activities have had serious and burdensome political and social implications for law enforcement and their relationship with the Muslim community. The activities have strained relations between law enforcement and the Muslim community. The sense of disillusionment has been manifested by the call of some for a total or conditional boycott of contact with law enforcement. The negative cumulative effect has not been lessened by the admission of the NYPD’s top brass that their venture did not produce a single lead. Or by the NJ AG’s statement to Muslim leaders that the NYPD has ceased spying operations in NJ. Lawsuits have also been filed against the NYPD and will likely open up more relevant constitutional concerns for further debate.

American Muslims agree with Assemblyman Manior’s view that, “No doubt we must protect our country against the threat of terrorism, but not at the expense of civil liberties.” Imperfect as it may appear, the bill is an important step to addressing a serious void in our current laws. Surveillance is a necessary law enforcement tool, but to be effective in ensuring our security, it must also be legal and constitutional.

Related: Link to the proposed law as introduced in the New Jersey Legislature: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2012/Bills/A3000/2948_R1.HTM

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