Professor Baher Azmy, Students
CSJ & ACLU File Suit Against Newark Police on Behalf of Honor Student Illegally Detained
The Center for Social Justice, Civil Rights and Constitutional Litigation Clinic, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, recently filed suit against the Newark Police Department for violating the rights of a 17 year-old honor student who was illegally handcuffed and detained for using her cell phone to video record police activity on a bus.
Widely reported on television, radio and in press throughout state and across the nation (See below), the case was handled by Professor Baher Azmy and members of his Civil Rights and Constitutional Litigation Clinic, third year students Mark Keogh, Dan Bause, William Conaboy and Douglas M. Nelson.
The students, under the supervision of Professor Azmy, performed investigative work and interviews in the preliminary stages of the case, strategized procedural tactics, and wrote the complaint filed in United States District Court in Newark, New Jersey. They also took part in the press conference held by the ACLU to publicly announce the lawsuit; one of many suits now pending against the Newark Police.
Professor Azmy observed, “The law students working on this case saw how the law, as written, comes into life. They researched legal claims, and fashioned those claims alongside a client narrative they helped to frame in a persuasive way. They also formed a meaningful relationship with our client. It was a clinical experience at its best.”
Mark Keough ’11 remarked, “This case was – and is – compelling. Khaliah Fitchette is an honor student recently accepted into Cornell University and she was engaged in core protected First Amendment activity.” Khaliah was riding a city bus home from school and was standing approximately 10 feet away from a man when he fell to the floor. When the police arrived the man remained dazed, if not unconscious. Khaliah was not obstructing or interfering with police activity; nevertheless, the Newark Police seized Ms. Fitchette and her cell phone, deleted the video footage in violation of her First Amendment rights and then handcuffed and detained her in violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. The officers then drove her to a juvenile processing center and then to an adult processing center in order to charge her with a crime. Even though the officers knew she was a juvenile, and the police had no lawful basis to charge her, they threatened to charge Khaliah as an adult. After a prolonged detention, the police finally returned a tearful Ms. Fitchette to her mother. “It’s likely the officers knew they couldn’t charge Khaliah but, for some reason, they thought it was their job to teach her a lesson,” Keogh explained.
William Conaboy ’11 agreed, noting “In addition to violations of the First and Fourth Amendments, New Jersey State law was violated as well. Many of the protections under New Jersey law are actually greater than those afforded by the Federal Constitution. For instance, the state Supreme Court has strongly suggested in its Opinions that citizens are free to videotape and/or photograph police officers. In addition, New Jersey law mandates that when the police detain minors, their parents or guardians must be contacted. Throughout the ordeal, Khaliah repeatedly requested that her mother be contacted as the police were driving her around from one place to another—but the police officers just ignored her. I can’t imagine how scared and confused she must have been.”
“Whatever lesson they were trying to teach Khaliah, it wasn’t law,” said Dan Bause ‘11. “Newark police officers are supposed to protect the city’s residents and, at the very least, should respect our constitutionally protected rights. These two officers tried to take the law into their own hands, by handcuffing and arresting Khaliah without any lawful authority to do so. The entire case has been an amazing and eye-opening experience. Throughout law school, you read about cases like this, but to actually be in the middle of one and to find yourself using what you have learned to defend the First and Fourth Amendment is an extraordinary experience. The case was demanding, but it was also rewarding.”
Douglas M. Nelson ’11 agreed, “Working on this case was a highlight of my law school experience. It allowed me to take what I had learned in so many courses over the last few years and apply it to an actual case for an actual client – defending both her rights and the Constitution itself.” Nelson concluded, “the fact that we were able to organize and participate in a press conference – where Mark was interviewed by a local television station and we were all featured on the news – was the cherry on top of an incredibly rewarding experience.”
Other Fall 2010 Constitutional Litigation Clinic students worked hard on the case in preparation for its filing, including third years Irma Akansu, Nick Schroeter and Marissa Litwin and Keera Waldron.
News of the CSJ/ACLU lawsuit was covered by WCBS and WNBC TV, Fox 5, My 9 News, WNJN News (PBS), News 12 New Jersey, FIOS TV, WCBS Radio, NJ101.5 Radio, The Star Ledger, and through an Associated Press article, in newspapers across the country such as the Pittsburgh Tribune, the San Antonio Express-News, and the Daily Journal of Indiana.