A civil lawsuit filed last November on behalf of injection drug users is now on the verge of blossoming into a class action lawsuit. "James Roe," "John B.," and Hilton Perez, all card-carrying members of a legally operating needle exchange program (NEP) were arrested by the New York Police Department (NYPD) in different incidents in the last two years. "Roe," for example, was arrested in a Greenwich Village anti-drug sweep in 1999 after police found traces of heroin in a syringe he carried. Attorneys for the Urban Justice Center's Harm Reduction Legal Project filed suit against the city, arguing that police illegally targeted registered NEP participants who, under a special provision of city law, could legally possess syringes (see http://www.drcnet.org/wol/165.html#needle2 for background).
According to the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center on Avenue C, where "Roe" got his needles, clients were often caught up in police anti-drug dragnets. NEP registration cards sometimes worked to prevent arrest, but other times they did not. "Roe" told the New York Times that police cut up his NEP card during his arrest.
In an August 1 ruling, federal district court Judge Robert Sweet, a well-known advocate for drug reform, granted a motion asking that the suit be considered for class-action status, meaning that other registered injection drug users arrested by police could join the lawsuit. Because the plaintiff is seeking monetary damages, the granting of class-action status could have a significant financial impact on the city in the event of a victory.
"At least one hundred and as many as 5,000 people" arrested by the NYPD while registered as NEP participants could join the suit, Urban Justice Center attorney Corrinne Carey told DRCNet. Carey added that the case could affect all NEP participants, some 30,000 people. "We're trying to cover all of the people who are members or potential members of the program," said Carey. "Although the press coverage said we got class-action status, that is a little premature. Judge Sweet allowed us to amend our complaint to include class allegations," she explained. "That is an indication that the judge will grant class-action status."
But Carey and the plaintiffs are seeking more than monetary damages; they want positive change in the city's, and particularly, the NYPD's approach to NEPs and their clients. "We are asking that those people who are enrolled in NEPs or potentially enrolled not be arrested for drug possession charges based on unusable residue in syringes," said Carey. "NEPs won't work if people can't carry needles with residues. We're also asking for more training for police officers," Carey added, "because it is clear under the law that you can't be arrested, but it continues to happen. And we are asking that people who don't have their cards on them at the time not be arrested pending investigation. People shouldn't be arrested for having syringes," she said.
The needle exchange program supplies more than 3 million needles each year in New York City in an effort to stem the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases. The program is taxpayer funded and had worked with city officials to craft an exception from drug paraphernalia laws for program participants.
The editorial page writers at Rupert Murdoch's New York Post took great exception to Sweet's ruling, and they weren't too happy with the Urban Justice Center, either. In an editorial permeated with derogatory, emotion-laden rhetoric --it ran under the header, "The Druggies' Judge" -- the Post maintained that:
"Sweet, in his ongoing bid to strike down every law against the use of dangerous drugs, has now opened a door that could wipe out the NYPD's highly effective sweeps of high-drug areas. This ruling was part of "the judge's larger drug-legalization campaign," the Post thundered.
As for the Urban Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for poor and homeless New Yorkers, the Post was still irritated with it for daring to challenge the city's policy of forcing the city's homeless into shelters. While the Center argues that NEPs are a harm reduction measure that serve the public health and that police harassment of program participants thus threatens the public health -- a notion the Post finds "preposterous" -- the Post's editorial writers deign to tell their readers "what this case really is about: A left-wing activist group intent on blocking every effort to bring positive change to this city, and a judge who likewise thinks that New York would be better off if drugs were available for the asking."
"That's the Post for you," laughed Carey. "The Human Rights Law Project is committed to idea of harm reduction and opposing those laws which cause more harm than the drugs themselves. We work on a number of different issues for this city's most downtrodden."