Federal Judge Allows Class Action Challenging the NYPD's Stop-and-Frisk Program


Today a federal judge certified a class action lawsuit challenging the New York Police Department's "stop and frisk" program, which is on track to break last year's record for harassing people whom cops deem suspicious. Last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union reports, there were 685,724 stops, most of which involved pat-downs ostensibly aimed at discovering weapons. Nine out of 10 stops resulted in no arrest or summons, while 98 percent of the searches yielded no weapons (which Mayor Michael Bloomberg says just shows you how effective the program is). Eighty-seven percent of the people stopped were black or Latino.

In a 2008 lawsuit on behalf of four innocent New Yorkers who were detained, questioned, and (in three cases) searched by the NYPD, the Center for Constitutional Rights argues that police routinely stop people without the "reasonable suspicion" they are supposed to have under Terry v. Ohio, the 1968 Supreme Court decision on which the legal rationale for the program depends. The complaint says this practice violates the Fourth Amendment's ban on "unreasonable searches and sezures" and, because of the focus on racial minorities, the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection.  

In allowing the lawsuit to proceed as a class action, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin emphasized that "suspicionless stops should never occur." She castigated the city for its "cavalier attitude towards the prospect of a 'widespread practice of suspicionless stops,'" which she said "displays a deeply troubling apathy towards New Yorkers' most fundamental constitutional rights." She said a class action, which could cover hundreds of thousands of people (since there have been millions of stops since 2004), is appropriate partly because "the vast majority of New Yorkers who are unlawfully stopped will never bring suit to vindicate their rights." If the plaintiffs can show that the department is "engaging in a widespread practice of unlawful stops," Scheindlin said, "an injunction seeking to curb that practice is not a 'judicial intrusion into a social institution' [as the city argued] but a vindication of the Constitution and an exercise of the courts' most important function: protecting individual rights in the face of the government's malfeasance." 

Last week Mayor Bloomberg defended the stop-and-frisk program, which he said is not about catching bad guys but about deterring them from carrying guns, in the same way that sobriety checkpoints are supposed to discourage people from driving while intoxicated. As I pointed out, that analogy to random traffic stops, which the Supreme Court has allowed in the special case of checkpoints aimed at catching drunk drivers but not for the sake of detecting crime in general, seemingly concedes the argument underlying this lawsuit: that police are stopping and frisking people without reasonable suspicion, which is clearly unconstitutional. Notably, the one named plaintiff in this case who was not frisked repeatedly told police he did not consent to a search, and his refusal was observed by several witnesses, whose presence apparently prompted the cops to move along. Nothing to see here.

Prevous coverage of stop and frisk here.