Criminal Justice

Stop-and-frisk tactics by New York cops violated Fourth and 14th Amendments, judge rules


A federal judge in Manhattan has ruled that New York police violated the Constitution when they targeted “the right people” with stop-and-frisk tactics.

Minorities were disproportionately targeted under policies that encouraged more police stops to combat crime, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin wrote in a 195-page decision (PDF). “A police department may not target a racially defined group for stops in general—that is, for stops based on suspicions of general criminal wrongdoing—simply because members of that group appear frequently in the police department’s suspect data,” she wrote.

Scheindlin found violations of the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. As a remedy, the judge appointed lawyer Peter Zimroth of Arnold & Porter to monitor police conduct. He is a former corporation counsel for New York City and former chief assistant district attorney in Manhattan.

“In light of the very active and public debate on the issues addressed in this opinion—and the passionate positions taken by both sides—it is important to recognize the human toll of unconstitutional stops,” Scheindlin wrote. “While it is true that any one stop is a limited intrusion in duration and deprivation of liberty, each stop is also a demeaning and humiliating experience. No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life. Those who are routinely subjected to stops are overwhelmingly people of color, and they are justifiably troubled to be singled out when many of them have done nothing to attract the unwanted attention.”

Scheindlin reviewed statistics on 4.4 million police stops made between January 2004 and June 2012, and said a forms database indicated at least 200,000 were made without reasonable suspicion.

Officers were pressured to increase their stops, and the city did nothing when notified that the stops were being made in a racially skewed manner, she wrote. Supervisors routinely reviewed the productivity of officers, but did not review the facts cited to justify such stops to determine whether they were legally sufficient.

Scheindlin also noted an unwritten policy for police to target “the right people” for stops. “This is a form of racial profiling,” she said. “While a person’s race may be important if it fits the description of a particular crime suspect, it is impermissible to subject all members of a racially defined group to heightened police enforcement because some members of that group are criminals. The equal protection clause does not permit race-based suspicion.”

According to Scheindlin’s opinion, 52 percent of the 4.4 million police stops were followed by a frisk for weapons. A weapon was found after 1.5 percent of those frisks.

In 52 percent of those 4.4 million stops, the person stopped was black; in 31 percent the person was Hispanic; and in 10 percent the person was white. Weapons were seized in 1 percent of the stops of blacks; 1.1 percent of the stops of Hispanics; and 1.4 percent of the stops of whites. Contraband other than weapons was seized in 1.8 percent of the stops of blacks; 1.7 percent of the stops of Hispanics; and 2.3 percent of the stops of whites.

Scheindlin illustrated poor police training by citing differing testimony on what constituted “furtive movements” used to justify stops. One officer said it could mean changing direction, walking a certain way, being fidgety, stuttering, looking back and forth, adjusting a hip or belt, grabbing at a pocket, acting a little suspicious, going in and out of a location, and moving into and out of a car too quickly. Another said it could mean hanging out in front of a building or sitting on benches and then making a quick movement, such as bending down or going inside the lobby, or suddenly becoming very nervous and very aware.

“If officers believe that the behavior described above constitutes furtive movement that justifies a stop,” Scheindlin wrote, “then it is no surprise that stops so rarely produce evidence of criminal activity.”

Scheindlin issued her opinion after a two-month bench trial, the New York Times reports. The story calls the decision “a repudiation of a major element in the Bloomberg administration’s crime-fighting legacy.”

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