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Judge rules that millions can sue NYPD over stop-and-frisk

Published time: May 16, 2012 20:12
Edited time: May 17, 2012 00:15
Mario Tama /Getty Images / AFP

Mario Tama /Getty Images / AFP

A federal judge in New York has given the go ahead for a class action lawsuit to move forward against the city’s police department over allegations that its stop-and-frisk program has continuously allowed officers to discriminate against minorities.

In a ruling made Wednesday by US District Judge Shira Scheindlin, the pending suit against the NYPD, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others was granted class action status.

Authorities seem nonplussed.

When asked for his take on Judge Scheindlin’s decision, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly told the New York Times that he had no comment because the litigation was continuing, but offered one quip: “It is what it is.”

Mayor Bloomberg also said he couldn’t comment specifically on the ruling, but, according to the Associated Press, had some words nonetheless.

"Nobody should ask Ray Kelly to apologize – he's not going to and neither am I – for saving 5,600 lives. And I think it's fair to say that stop, question and frisk has been an essential part of the NYPD's work; it's taken more than 6,000 guns off the streets in the last eight years, and this year we are on pace to have the lowest number of murders in recorded history. … We're not going to do anything that undermines that trend and threatens public safety,” said the mayor.

For others, however, it doesn’t seem as clear cut; in her ruling, Judge Scheindlin decries, "First, suspicionless stops should never occur.”

The current case began to take hold all the way back in 2008 when attorneys representing four plaintiffs first began seeking class action status. The four original named plaintiffs say that they were wrongfully stopped and frisked based on their race. In only 2011, the NYPD stopped 685,724 New Yorkers, reports the American Civil Liberties Union. In all, 89 percent of those stopped were either black or Latino. Of the nearly 700,000 cases in that year alone, 88 percent of the people stopped were found innocent. Such statistics are largely typical for previous years, although one thing that has changed as time has gone on is the number of pedestrians stopped by law enforcement.

“[T]he policing policies that the city has implemented over the past decade and half have led to a dramatic increase in the number of pedestrian stops, to the point of now reaching almost 600,000 a year,” Judge Scheindlin wrote of the case earlier this year.

Now anyone that feels they have been victimized similarly by the New York Police Department by means of an invasive and unwarranted search since 2005 can add their name to the case.

By way of the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk policies, police officers in the Big Apple are allowed to conduct searches of suspicious persons if they have reason to believe that they are committing a crime. Statistics documenting the history of the program reveal, however, that skin color seems to play a pivotal role when the police are left to decide who is frisked and who isn’t.

Judge Scheindlin says it is unlikely that many people will sign on to the case, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many who would be excluded from doing so. The NYPD has already stopped and frisked more than 200,000 people on the streets of New York in the first three months of 2012 alone; between 2004 and 2009, around 2.8 million similar stops were carried out.

“This case presents an issue of great public concern: the disproportionate number of Blacks and Latinos, as compared to Whites, who become entangled in the criminal justice system,” the judge writes in her ruling. “The specific claims raised in this case are narrower but they are raised in the context of the extensively documented racial disparities in the rates of stops, arrests, convictions, and sentences that continue through the present day.”

Elsewhere in her ruling, Judge Scheindlin says that the NYPD’s arguments in favor of the program appear “cavalier” and display “a deeply troubling apathy towards New Yorkers’ most fundamental constitutional rights.”

In a statement offered to the AP, the law office for the city of New York says, "We respectfully disagree with the decision and are reviewing our legal options."