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New York’s unconstitutional Stop and Frisk law

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Attorney Jason Chan

267 North Beacon Street, Suite 3
Boston MA 01235


Phone: 781-343-1DUI (781-343-1384)
Fax: 617-226-7986

In a victory for individual’s rights, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin has determined that New York Police Department’s controversial stop and frisk policy is  “unconstitutional.”   According to CNN, Judge Scheindlin concluded that city’s “stop and frisk” policy “violated plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures.“  Judge Scheindlin also found that the policy led to racial profiling by police, violating the plaintiffs’ equal rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The 4th Amendment Protection Against Unreasonable Searches And Seizures

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures.  In legal terms, a “search” is an inspection of any place you normally consider private.  Police officers must have probable cause to conduct a search.  A “seizure” is the actual taking of a person’s property.   Where a person has an “expectation of privacy,” such as in a home or car, police must have probable cause to conduct a search.

On the other hand, a “stop and frisk” is a limited search of a person’s body.   A “stop” is legally defined as when a police officer detains a suspicious individual.  Police officers conduct a “frisk” by running their hands lightly over a suspect’s outer garments in search of a concealed weapon.

In the 1968 landmark ruling, Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court determined that the Fourth Amendment isn’t violated when police “stop and frisk” suspects on the street without probable cause.  The court found that it’s okay to stop a person as long as a police officer has a “reasonable suspicion” that the person has “committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.”  Additionally, police must have a reasonable belief that the person “may be armed and presently dangerous.”   Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause, and paved the way for New York’s controversial stop and frisk law.

New York’s Stop and Frisk Policy

In the years since Terry, police departments across the country have employed “stop and frisk” techniques.  However, starting in 2003, New York police officers were required to report how many stops they made.  Since that time, the total number of “stop and frisks” escalated to more than 685,000 a year by 2012.  The sheer number of stops on New York’s streets led to increased scrutiny and the recent class action lawsuit.

The “stop and frisk” lawsuit, filed in 2008, alleged that New York’s policy was unconstitutional.   According to evidence presented at trial, police officers routinely stopped minority men, predominantly young blacks and Hispanics. The lead plaintiff, a medical student, was stopped twice – once in front of his home for no reason.    Evidence was also presented that police officers stopped and frisked people simply to make quotas, rather than to deter crime.

Judge Scheindlin declared “The city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner,” she wrote. “In their zeal to defend a policy that they believe to be effective, they have willfully ignored overwhelming proof that the policy of targeting ‘the right people’ is racially discriminatory and therefore violates the United States Constitution.”

Based on this determination, Judge Scheindlin found that police made more than 200,000 stops from 2004 through June 2012 without sufficient cause to detain the suspects.

While “stopping and frisking” may be important to deter crime, “no one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life.”

Although the stop and frisk law has been declared unconstitutional, this story is not over.  Judge Scheindlin has stated that the police department may continue but only under the oversight of a federal monitor, along with other remedies including requiring police officers wear cameras.  She hopes that this will stop police from misusing the policy to stop young men of color.  On the other hand, Mayor Bloomberg continues to defend the policy, stating that the reason for the high number of stop and frisks in minority neighborhoods is due to the higher rate of crime in these neighborhoods.  Bloomberg has declared that this decision will be appealed.   In the meantime, critics of the policy hope that as a result of the ruling, the number of stop and frisks will decline dramatically, “so that we can build stronger relationships between our communities of color and our police force. “


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