New York City Settles Lawsuit Concerning Forced Removal of Religious Head Coverings in Mugshot Photos

On Friday, April 5, 2024, New York City agreed to pay $17.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit brought by two Muslim women forced to remove their religious head coverings for New York Police Department post-arrest photos.

Jamilla Clark was arrested by the NYPD in January 2017 for violating a protective order filed by her ex-husband. Clark alleged that NYPD officers “threatened to prosecute her if she did not remove her hijab,” which she wore daily to cover her hair and signify her devotion to her faith, for the mugshot photo. Eight months later, Arwa Aziz was arrested for violating a protective order filed by her sister-in-law. Aziz alleged that she was forced to take mugshot photos for nearly five minutes with her hijab removed. When Aziz requested that she be permitted to keep her hijab on but pushed back slightly to expose her hairline and ears, officers refused and replied “[i]t’s the law.”

In March 2015, the NYPD implemented Interim Order 29, which established “protocols for taking post-arrest photographs for arrestees who refuse to remove their religious head coverings in the presence of NYPD officers.” Interim Order 29 amended Patrol Guide 208-03 by requiring “that Desk Officers take certain steps if an arrestee ‘indicates a refusal to remove their religious head covering for the official Department photograph at borough Court Section.” The order also required that the Borough Court Section Supervisor follow the same steps as the Desk Officer. The complaint filed by Clark and Aziz alleged that “the NYPD does not consistently apply its Booking Photograph policy as set forth in Interim Order 29.”

The complaint alleged that the NYPD’s policy “has had an extensive and corrosive effect on Muslim-American women in New York City. . . [and] is a profound manifestation of insensitivity towards religious practices and interests.” The complaint cited causes of action for (1) violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (42 U.S.C. § 2000cc); (2) violations of the Free Exercise Clause (42 U.S.C. § 1983); (3) violations of the New York State Constitution, Article I, Section 3; and (4) declaratory judgment under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 57, and 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201-02.

Two other Muslim women, Gehad Elsayed and Laila Ibrahim, sued the city and two NYPD officers in 2018 after they were forced to remove their hijabs for post-arrest photos. Elsayed and Ibrahim settled their lawsuit in 2020. In response to the two lawsuits brought by the four women, the NYPD agreed to change its post-arrest photo policy to allow people to wear religious head coverings during booking photos. The policy still allows for very limited exceptions in cases where the head covering obscures being able to see a person’s full facial features.

The preliminary settlement announced on Friday includes 3,600 class members, including men and women forced to remove their religious head coverings for post-arrest photos. The class members will be eligible for payments of approximately $7,000 to $13,000. Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn said, “The NYPD should have never stripped these religious New Yorkers of their head coverings and dignity. . . Money can’t fully undo this trauma, but it sends a powerful message that the NYPD can’t violate New Yorkers’ First Amendment rights without paying a price.”

Additional Reading

NYC agrees to $17.5 million settlement over forced removal of hijabs for mugshot photos, Courthouse News Service (April 5, 2024)

NYPD Sued Over Ban on Headscarves in Mug Shots, Courthouse News Service (March 16, 2018)

NYPD will now allow people to wear religious head coverings in booking photos, CNN (November 11, 2020)

Clark et al v. City of New York (Case No. 1:2018cv02334)

Complaint in Clark et al v. City of New York

Photo Credit: Kristi Blokhin /