August 12th, 2013

Federal Court Rules NYPD “Stop and Frisk” Policy Unconstitutional

Under the New York City Police Department’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy, police routinely stop and patdown individuals on city streets, checking for weapons or evidence of criminality. Between 2004 and 2009, the department conducted 2.8 million such stops. In place for decades, “stop and frisk” has received strong support from the NYPD leadership and many of the city’s elected officials, while activists and civil rights lawyers have decried the practice as racist and unconstitutional.

Plaintiffs sued in federal court, asserting the policy is illegal and unconstitutional, and a two-month-long trial was held in spring 2013. Evidence presented in federal court showed significant racial disparities in the implementation of “stop-and-frisk” and demonstrated a strong likelihood that many stops carried out under the policy violated the Constitution. Though black and Latino people make up 52 percent of New York City’s population, they constituted 85 percent of those stopped under the policy between 2004 and 2009. Data indicated that a neighborhood’s racial composition was a stronger predictor of its rate of “stop and frisk” activity than was than its crime rate.

Evidence also indicated that stops rarely led to discovery of criminal activity. Only 12 percent of stops resulted in an arrest or a summons, a rate lower than the rate of arrest or summons from random checkpoints. In order to comply with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, police officers must be able to articulate reasonable suspicion of criminality to justify a stop and frisk of an individual. Such a low rate of arrests and summons suggests that officers were making stops without reasonable suspicion. In addition, a review of police department records indicated that, between 2004 and 2009, approximately 170,000 indisputably illegal stops were performed.

On August 12, 2013, United States District Court Judge Schira Scheindlin ruled against the NYPD and declared the “stop and frisk” program unconstitutional. The court ordered the department to reform its practices. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD leaders expressed their continued support for the program and say they intended to appeal the ruling.