A federal judge ruled that a New York City police officer was wrong when he demanded identification from two men photographing a vintage train because the relevant law regarding identification was unconstitutionally vague.
“This lack of standards vests unlimited discretion in the hands of the officers, leaving it up to the individual officer to determine what documents or information they can demand,” U.S. Magistrate Cheryl Pollak wrote in her opinion. “Indeed, the ID Rule provides no guidance to the officers as to what constitutes ‘accurate, complete and true’ information and documents.’
Ernest Steve Barry, a longtime train enthusiast and editor of Railfan & Railroad Magazine, and his friend Michael Burkhart were visiting New York to view a train exhibit in 2010 and were taking photographs of a subway station in Queens when a transit official told them that doing so was illegal.
Barry asked the authorities to cite which law they were breaking, but he claimed the officers did not answer him. When asked for identification, Barry gave them his name and address but refused to hand over his ID, according to the opinion. The two men were then put into handcuffs, detained for half an hour and cited for unauthorized photography. Barry was also charged with failure to carry an ID. All charges were eventually dismissed.
In 2011, the men filed a civil rights lawsuit against the City of New York, the New York City Transit Authority and the police officer who detained them. Barry also asked the judge to rule New York’s ID Rule unconstitutional.
The law states that: "All persons on or in any facility or conveyance of the authority shall: provide accurate, complete and true information or documents requested by New York City police officers or authority personnel acting within the scope of their employment and otherwise in accordance with the law."
The men were represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which said in a statement that the lawsuit defended the public’s right to take photographs in the subway system without fear of being arrested or having to show identification to police.
“This decision is a victory for the freedom of people to walk around free from showing their papers, a core American right,” Mariko Hirose, who represented the men, said in the statement. “It’s past time for the NYPD to learn about the Constitution and stop harassing and even arresting people for exercising their basic rights.”