Understanding the Law
August 16, 2013

‘Stop-and-frisk’ in New York

On August 12, 2013, the news media reported breaking news in New York on US District Judge Shira Scheindlin’s ruling with regards to the “stop-and-frisk” policy of the New York Police Department (NYPD) in New York. She ruled that the way stop-and-frisk is used by the police is unconstitutional and that it unfairly targets Blacks and Hispanic in the population. The judge did not call for the end, but for careful monitoring of the practice.{{more}}

The controversy

The ruling sparked off controversy and the Mayor of New York came out strongly in favour of the policy, claiming how well it worked in the prevention of crime for the last decade. He elaborated on what he considered to be the role of this policy in reducing crimes claiming that crimes were down by 51 per cent. He further claimed that the judge’s ruling disregarded the “good intention” of police officers, while the NYPD Commissioner said that the notion that the police department engages in racial profiling is “recklessly untrue” The statistics, however, show that the crimes were on the down before the Mayor took office. He however, vowed to appeal the decision of the judge. The statistics have shown that some five million persons during the last decade were stopped and frisked, most of whom were Blacks and Hispanics.

About stop and frisk

US Legal describes stop and frisk as where “police temporarily detains somebody and pats down their outer clothing when there are specific facts leading a reasonable police officer to believe a person is armed and dangerous.” The officer must have a reasonable suspicion that a criminal activity is occurring or is about to occur. The object is to search for dangerous weapons or contraband, but if a drug container is found, it could be taken under the plain view doctrine.

The case before the court

In 2004, four men sued the department in a class action on the basis that they were unfairly targeted because of their race. In a 10-week bench trial, damming information was revealed about the practice of stop-and-frisk. Top officers from the NYPD and some 12 persons, 11 men and one women who said that they were victims of stop and frisk because of their race, gave testimony. The information before the court was revealing. The judge believed that some 200, 000 stops were made without reasonable suspicion. Of some 19 stops discussed at the trial, nine of them were unconstitutional and five more included wrongful frisking. In some cases no charges were brought against the victims because no guns were found. In fact, as the statistics reveal, in many cases more whites had guns than either Blacks or Hispanics when stopped.

Reforms to be implemented

The Judge said that she had no intention of getting rid of stop-and-frisk, but that she would seek reform. She appointed an independent monitor, the city’s former lead attorney and previously a chief assistant district attorney, to work closely with NYPD to oversee changes to stop-and-frisk. In her ruling, she noted that “the city’s highest officers had turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner and that persons Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures was violated.”

Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law.

E-mail address is: exploringthelaw@yahoo.com