Red light flasher atop of a police car. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The New York Civil Liberties Union on Monday filed a lawsuit that seeks to force the state Division of Human Rights to investigate a transgender woman’s claim of police discrimination by establishing, via the court, that police services are public accommodations and therefore the agency has jurisdiction over—and must investigate—the complaint.

The same petition, launched in Jefferson County Supreme Court, seeks to force the investigation of the woman’s jailers by establishing that the Human Rights Division has jurisdiction over complaints lodged with it against state correction agencies because the agencies allegedly provide housing accommodation protections.

The lawsuit stems from the Human Rights Division’s rejection in October of a complaint filed with it by DeAnna LeTray, a transgender woman and Watertown resident. LeTray contended in her complaint that she was abused and discriminated against by the Watertown City Police Department and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, who had kept her behind bars after a September 2017 arrest, according to court documents and an NYCLU news release issued Monday.

In her Human Rights Division filing, LeTray said that she was arrested during a domestic dispute with her daughter’s boyfriend, who she said pointed a gun at her, according to the court documents and NYCLU. Then, at the police station, she alleged that was made to remove her wig against her will. In addition, while being held at a jail run by the county sheriff’s office, LeTray said she was stripped naked and sexually assaulted.

According to the NYCLU’s petition filed in court—which quoted part of the Human Rights Division’s response to LeTray—the division “summarily reject[ed]” LeTray’s complaint “not based on any analysis of the merits, but rather ‘because the respondent police and corrections agencies are not public accommodations under the New York Human Rights Law.’”

According to the NYCLU lawsuit and news release, the Human Rights Division, part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive branch, is running afoul of the law by refusing to investigate LeTray’s complaint because the agency is tasked with enforcing the human rights law, which covers protections against discrimination in public accommodations as well as housing accommodations, education, employment and other settings.

“The NYCLU lawsuit argues that police services are public accommodations because they are owned and operated by state and local governments and provide services to the public at large,” the news release states, adding, “Likewise, corrections agencies are housing accommodations because they operate and manage buildings, like jails, which serve as the sleeping place of human beings.”

The petition and accompanying memorandum of law point out, and detail, that New York federal courts, along with state courts in New Jersey and Michigan, have said that police services are public accommodations, covered by human rights law.

The petition stated, “By refusing to take jurisdiction over complaints of discrimination by police and corrections agencies, the division unlawfully denies New Yorkers access to a vital administrative mechanism for vindicating their rights under the [state] Human Rights Law—a mechanism created in large part to alleviate the burdens and complications of litigation in the courts and to ensure that the most vulnerable New Yorkers can access anti-discrimination protections even if they cannot afford to hire a lawyer and initiate litigation.”

The memo of law added, “Applying the terms of the statute and controlling Court of Appeals precedent holding that the critical defining feature of public accommodations is the provision of services to the public, police services are public accommodations because they are owned and operated by state and local governments and provide services to the public at large.”

The state Division of Human Rights on Monday declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying that it does not comment on ongoing litigation.

In the NYCLU’s news release, Erin Beth Harrist, an NYCLU senior staff attorney who signed the court filings, said, “In most places around the state, there are no independent agencies who can investigate and hold police accountable when they violate the rights of New Yorkers,” She added, “For the many New Yorkers who do not have the resources to get a lawyer and go to court, the Division of Human Rights should be able and willing to investigate allegations of abuse and discrimination by police or in jails.”