New York's Stop and Frisk Declared Unconstitutional, Says Federal Judge

A federal judge declares New York City's stop and frisk policy unconstitutional and a form of racial profiling.

New York City

In a major ruling today, a federal judge declared New York City's policy of stopping and frisking people at random unconstitutional, and ordered a change in the police policy.   The judge, District Court Judge Shira A. Schendlin, made the ruling, and ordered an outside monitor to oversee the necessary changes to the policy.  Stop-and-frisk was subject to a class-action lawsuit against the city, claiming the policy targeted blacks and Latinos disproportionately, and they were often stopped without any legal reasons.  Many considered the practice to be a form of racial profiling.

Stop and frisk essentially is a practice in which police officers essentially stop, question, and frisk pedestrians for possible weapons and contraband, without any particular reason other than the cops' own "suspicions."  Given that it is a quick procedure, the number of people stopped and frisked in a given year is in the hundreds of thousands, with about 684,000 people stopped in 2011 alone.  Supposedly, the practice is meant to deter crime, and according to the NYPD, one in eight who are stopped are accused of a crime.

However, the problem with stop and frisk is that the system primarily focuses in high-crime neighborhoods in the city, which also happen to be filled with Latino and black people, making it prone to a form of racial profiling.  Furthermore, as with most police practices in big cities these days, stop and frisk came with a quota system, something that was discovered in the class-action lawsuit.  The problem with quotas, as with other systems driven by data, is that they are made on the loose assumption that meeting a certain benchmark on a specific practice will somehow make the streets safer, something that is not necessarily true, and eschews legal and moral principles in order to get the job done.

The class action lawsuit that triggered today's ruling proves that point.  The lead plantiff, a medical student, was stopped twice over a period of time, including once in front of his own home in the Bronx.  Another person stopped supposedly matched the description of a fugitive involved in a string of burglaries, but those burglaries last happened a month prior to the search, and they were located more than a mile away (a very large distance in a city as dense as New York City).  One other person, talking on his cell phone, was stopped because police thought the phone was a marijuana joint.  In all these cases, there seemed to be nothing that merits reasonable suspicion.

The stop and frisk ruling comes as Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he will use executive authority to override minimum sentences on low-level drug offenses.

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