New York law requires authorities, including the New York City Police Department, to destroy arrested juveniles’ fingerprints. For years, though, the NYPD ignored the legislative mandate and illegally kept a fingerprint database, affecting tens of thousands of children, many of whom were never found guilty of a crime.
In 2014, lawyers from Legal Aid’s Juvenile Rights Practice were assigned to represent a 15-year-old boy who had been arrested. Attorney Christine Bella and Lisa Freeman, director of special litigation and law reform, learned police took their client’s fingerprints during an earlier arrest. The case was never prosecuted, but his fingerprints were stored in an NYPD server, in violation of state law.
New York has unique safeguards for juvenile arrest records: Under the Family Court Act, fingerprints may only be taken from minors for specific offenses and in most instances, they must be turned over to the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), a statewide criminal justice support agency, and then destroyed. Photographs and palmprints can be retained confidentially, though the law requires destruction in certain situations, like a voided arrest, a decision not to prosecute or where the charges don’t result in a felony conviction.
As required by law, Freeman and Bella said, the teen’s rap sheet should have been purged of the prior arrest. The fact that his fingerprints were accessible to the NYPD caused the women to suspect the department was not in compliance with the statute.
For nearly a year, Freeman and Bella were told repeatedly that the department did not maintain a database with children’s arrest-related documents. Then, when asked whether the NYPD destroyed the arrest information and fingerprints, as the law required, they were told juvenile fingerprints had been “sealed.”
“When destruction is required, sealing does not go far enough,” the lawyers wrote in a 2015 letter, threatening the NYPD with legal action.
Around the same time, Bella and Freeman also contacted DCJS to learn more about its data retention and destruction procedures for youth arrest information.
After a review of its records, the agency discovered it had been unlawfully maintaining thousands of juvenile fingerprints. The DCJS sent a letter to local law enforcement, including the NYPD, informing it of 5,000 children for whom arrest-related documents needed to be destroyed.
It took nine months for the NYPD to finally acknowledge receipt of the DCJS letter, the lawyers said. In March 2017, the department claimed to have purged its system of those documents and fingerprints. The following year, the Intercept reported, the department officially updated its policy.
In a statement to The Washington Post on Wednesday, the NYPD conceded a change in its retention policy and confirmed “that the Department destroys juvenile delinquent fingerprints after the prints have been transmitted to DCJS."
According to a Legal Aid Society news release Wednesday, it took six years and two lawsuit threats before “the NYPD finally admitted that it had, in fact, been retaining juvenile delinquency fingerprints.”
Legal Aid also called for the New York City Council to hold an oversight hearing on department surveillance, “including the City’s gang, facial recognition, and DNA databanks,” and to pass legislation that would allow the public greater transparency in police use of these technologies.
“City government has to do a better job holding accountable — with oversight hearings and transparency — the NYPD and local policing agencies,” Freeman told The Post.
The problem, she said, extends nationally and “as we get more and more technology to facilitate surveillance were all at risk of having our civil liberties infringed upon by law enforcement.”