‘Stop and frisk’: why a judge ruled the New York tactic unconstitutional

The judge in the stop-and-frisk decision also appointed an independent monitor to ensure that the New York Police Department’s practices would be in line with constitutional standards in the future.

Brendan McDermid/REUTERS
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks during a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras at City Hall in New York, Aug. 9, 2013.

In a blow to the administration of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a federal judge declared on Monday that the city’s long-contentious police tactic known as “stop and frisk” violated the constitutional rights of perhaps millions of citizens.

The judge, Shira Scheindlin of the US District Court in Manhattan, also appointed an independent monitor to ensure that the practices of the New York Police Department (NYPD) would be in line with constitutional standards in the future – the remedy preferred by the Obama administration.

The decision represents two major setbacks to Mayor Bloomberg and police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, the most vigorous defenders of the practice, in which officers flood high-crime neighborhoods and then stop and sometimes frisk anyone they believe may be involved in criminal activity. The mayor and Mr. Kelly had not only insisted the tactic passed constitutional muster, but they also bitterly opposed any kind of outside oversight of the city’s police.

Judge Scheindlin, appointed by President Clinton in 1994, found the city’s practices did not meet the “reasonable suspicion” standard set by the US Supreme Court, which allows police to stop people if they believe criminal activity “may be afoot.” This is a lower standard than “probable cause,” the most well-known standard in the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

"They have received both actual and constructive notice since at least 1999 of widespread Fourth Amendment violations occurring as a result of the NYPD's stop and frisk practices,” the judge wrote in her 195-page ruling. “Despite this notice, they deliberately maintained and even escalated policies and practices that predictably resulted in even more widespread Fourth Amendment violations."

The judge also found that the city was profiling racial minorities, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s "equal protection" clause.

“The City and its highest officials believe that blacks and Hispanics should be stopped at the same rate as their proportion of the local criminal suspect population,” the judge wrote. “But this reasoning is flawed because the stopped population is overwhelmingly innocent – not criminal.”

About 85 percent of those stopped and frisked are black or Latino. Among all people stopped, only 1 out of 10 stops results in an arrest or summons.

Bloomberg, who will leave office at the end of this year, has been outspoken defending the controversial police tactic, often doing so with an unusual amount of passion and scorn for its critics.

“[Even] with that incredible record in reducing crime, saving lives, and making neighborhoods far safer – while at the same time reducing incarceration and reducing police shootings – it’s hard to believe, but the NYPD is under attack, probably because this is an election year,” the mayor said in a speech at the end of April – the same day NYPD officers were testifying before Scheindlin.

“The attacks most often come from those who play no constructive role in keeping our city safe, but rather view their jobs as pointing fingers from the steps of City Hall,” Bloomberg continued. “Some of them scream that they know better than you how to run the department.”

Scheindlin said she will appoint Peter L. Zimroth, a partner in the New York office of Arnold & Porter, to monitor the NYPD’s practices – leaving the tensions of judicial oversight over the nation’s largest police force to the newly elected mayor.

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