On August 12, a U.S. federal judge found that the New York Police Department had systematically violated the U.S. Constitution in the way it performed stops and frisks. Judge Shira Scheindlin’s 198-page opinion in the case, Floyd v. New York, is here.
I’ve discussed the case in earlier posts (here and here), so an explanation of the judge’s opinion is important. Today, I’m going to talk about what the judge actually said in her opinion; there’s already a lot of misinformation out there. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the remedies the judge has required: the actions that NYPD will have to take to bring itself into compliance with the law.
First, the decision does not “outlaw” stop and frisk; it does not stop the NYPD from using this long-established tactic. The judge said, correctly, that stop and frisk is a legal and constitutional tactic that police may use; the U.S. Supreme Court said so in 1968, in Terry v. Ohio. But, the judge said, the police must obey some basic constitutional rules when they do so. That, she said, was the problem: the NYPD was using stop and frisk unconstitutionally, in violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, by stopping people without the required reasonable suspicion: a very small amount of fact-based evidence pertaining to the individual person, but something the police lacked in many tens of thousands of these encounters. In that respect, the judge ruled, the NYPD “has a policy or custom of violating the Constitution by making unlawful stops and conducting unlawful frisks” (p. 3).
Second, the judge made clear that she was not ruling on how effective the use of stop and frisk may or may not have been in fighting crime, either standing alone or in comparison with other police tactics for fighting crime. (See, e.g., p. 2), Rather, she said, she was ruling on whether the way stop and frisk had been used squared with the Constitution.
Third, the judge found that the way that stop and frisk was practiced by the NYPD was racially skewed against Black and Latino New Yorkers, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. This finding has grabbed the most headlines, because the judge called it “a form of racial profiling.” This led to outraged reaction by NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly (transcript here), among others. But the judge’s reasoning on this point, found in summary form on pp. 10 and 11 of the opinion, is not actually the stuff of controversy or bombshells; it comes directly from the testimony she heard:
…[T]he evidence at trial revealed that the NYPD has an unwritten policy of targeting “the right people” for stops. In practice, the policy encourages the targeting of young black and Hispanic men based on their prevalence in local crime complaints…While a person’s race may be important if it fits the description of a particular crime suspect, it is impermissible to subject all members of a racially defined group to heightened police enforcement because some members of that group are criminals. The Equal Protection Clause does not permit race-based suspicion.
In conclusion, the judge said, the NYPD violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution not by doing stops and frisks, but by doing them in an unconstitutional manner over a period of years, despite being on notice that there were constitutional problems, and these practices “were sufficiently widespread as to have the force of law.”
That’s the legal and constitutional basis for the judge’s decision that the time has come to reform the use of stop and frisk in New York. In my next post, I will discuss how the judge will require that reform to take place.