|New York City|
A Federal Judge in New York recently granted class-action status to potentially thousands of plaintiffs in a suit involving alleged 4th Amendment violations by the New York City Police Department. The suit claims that the New York City Police engaged in a policy of committing rampant unlawful “Terry stops” or short stops and frisks of people on the streets of the city.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures” and in Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition is not violated when the police stop a suspect on the street and frisk them without probable cause to arrest. However, the Court said that before making such a stop the police need “reasonable suspicion” that the suspect is committing (or is about to commit) a crime. Furthermore, the police need reasonable suspicion that the suspect is armed or dangerous to take the further step of frisking for weapons. Reasonable suspicion is more than just a “hunch” and needs to be based on “specific and articulable facts”.
The Plaintiffs claim that the police department of New York City disproportionately stop and frisk minority people and have not reformed their policies as required by a settlement in 2003 of a similar suit. The Court in granting the class certification noted that between 2004 and 2009 there were over 2.8 million Terry stops. Over half of those stops were of Black people and thirty percent were of Latinos. Only ten percent of the stops were of Whites. The Court also recognized the important societal interest in the case and noted that the plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages but only a declarative judgment and injunction.
It will be interesting to follow this case and see how many plaintiffs come forward to take part. In over 2.8 million stops there must be thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of people involved. If the Plaintiffs allegations are true then a good number of those people had their constitutional rights violated. While a “stop and frisk” does not take a long time it surely has consequence to the person detained and frisked without good cause. As the Supreme Court in Terry noted, being stop and frisked “must surely be an annoying, frightening, and perhaps humiliating experience.”
For more on the alleged abuses by the New York City Police Department, see This American Life #414 “Right to Remain Silent”. The episode contains the story of a NYC police officer who secretly recorded himself and fellow officers for 17 months capturing evidence of the type of abuses alleged by the Plaintiffs in the suit.