NJ Muslims take NYPD surveillance program to court

Preventing the next terrorist attack is foremost on the minds of law enforcement. But Muslim groups have long complained that a surveillance program by New York police crossed the line. Tuesday, they pleaded their case before a federal appeals court.

A predominantly Muslim community in Paterson, New Jersey was one of the areas under police surveillance after 9/11. New York Police Department officers monitored mosques, businesses and schools in what the department said was an effort to root out potential terrorists.

But in court, Muslim groups argued their constitutional rights were being violated. Baher Azmy is an attorney for the plaintiffs.

"You can keep people safe, you just have to use legitimate law enforcement methods like actual suspicion," Azmy told CBS News. "It doesn't keep anyone safe to target people based on their religious beliefs."

Last February, a judge threw out the groups' lawsuit, saying there was no evidence the NYPD chose its targets based on religion. But the groups contend that beginning in 2002, police "spied" on ordinary individuals who were not suspected of illegal activity and they want such surveillance outlawed.

Syed Farhaj Hassan is an Army reservist who served in Iraq for more than a year. He says his mosque was targeted and that made him stop going.

"The American Muslim community was victimized by the New York Police Department and their warrant-less surveillance," Hassan said. "There's no reason that that should stand to continue."

The NYPD demographics unit which conducted the surveillance was shut down in March. When CBS News asked if blanket surveillance of Muslim communities was continuing, the NYPD declined to comment, citing the ongoing court case.

The three-judge panel that heard Tuesday's arguments is not expected to rule for several months.