NEW YORK, Sept 29 (Reuters) - The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey must face a lawsuit over claims it illegally searched its police officers’ personal cellphones to uncover evidence of misconduct at a 2014 party, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled on Friday.
U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood said a reasonable jury could find that the warrantless searches were unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment because they were not work-related, and because the officers feared being fired if they did not consent.
Wood also dismissed claims against Port Authority officials involved in the investigation, saying they were immune from claims by the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association (PBA) and an officer, Kathleen Howard.
The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages at a trial, scheduled for Nov. 10.
“It’s a substantial victory for the PBA,” Richard Emery, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an interview. “Probationary employees cannot face the pain of termination in order to force them to give up their right to privacy in their cellphones.”
The Port Authority has its own police force and oversees bridges, tunnels and airports in the New York City area.
Representatives of the agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The case arose from an August 2014 party at the Texas Arizona Bar & Grill in Hoboken, New Jersey, which was held one day after a graduation ceremony for officer trainees.
News reports described a variety of misconduct at the party including inappropriate touching, fighting and property damage, with a bouncer calling it the “worst night” he ever worked. Nine officers were later fired and three were suspended.
Investigators seized officers’ cellphones after learning that some officers had used the GroupMe app to communicate about the party.
“The fact that defendants were engaging in a purportedly ‘work-related’ investigation did not permit them to conduct warrantless searches of items outside of the ‘workplace context,'” the judge wrote.
Wood also said jurors could find that the searches were coerced because of the threat of termination.
In dismissing claims against individual investigators, Wood said it was not clearly established in 2014 that the searches were illegal. She also found no evidence that the Port Authority would conduct similar searches again.
The case is Port Authority Police Benevolent Association Inc et al v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 15-03526. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)