NYPD Stop-and-Frisk Lawsuit Ruled a Class Action Suit

Human Rights

A federal judge has granted class action status to a lawsuit that alleges the New York police department's controversial stop-and-frisk policy is unconstitutional and amounts to systemic racial discrimination.

Barring an effective appeal on behalf of the city, the decision paves the way for a trial that would require the department to defend before a jury its policy of stopping hundreds of thousands of minority New Yorkers each year.

The decision comes less than a week after a report revealed the number of stop-and-frisks made by the NYPD of young African Americans in 2011exceeded the number of New Yorkers who make up that racial group. Nearly nine out of 10 of the 685,724 citizens stopped by the police last year had committed no crime.

"This is a victory for people of color and all people in New York City," said Sunita Patel, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit legal organization representing the four plaintiffs in the suit. "We finally have a decision saying that the NYPD should be put on trial for its practice of stop-and-frisk."

Filed in 2008, Floyd v the City of New York, accuses the NYPD, commissioner Ray Kelly, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, several named and unnamed police officers and the city itself of routinely violating the first and fourth amendment rights of thousands of New Yorkers on a daily basis.

In August, US district judge Shira Scheindlin rejected a request by the city to dismiss the complaint. And last month Scheindlin ruled that the testimony of a Columbia University criminologist, Jeffrey Fagan, would be admitted in the case. After examining NYPD data cataloging 2.8m police stops between 2004 and 2009, Fagan determined that police made 150,000 unconstitutional or legally unjustified stops.

In her latest 57-page decision, released Wednesday, Scheindlin described the city's attitude to the policy as "deeply troubling", noting there was "overwhelming evidence" that the policy has led to thousands of unlawful stops.

Scheindlin wrote that "suspicionless stops should never occur" and added that the NYPD's "cavalier attitude towards the prospect of a 'widespread practice of suspicionless stops' displays a deeply troubling apathy towards New Yorkers' most fundamental constitutional rights".

City attorneys attempted to have the suit dismissed by arguing it amounted to a "judicial intrusion". Schendlin described the defense as "disturbing" and argued that if the NYPD was engaging in a systemic policy of unlawful stops, then an injunction seeking to curb that policy is not the "judicial intrusion into a social institution" but instead "a vindication of the constitution and an exercise of the courts' most important function: protecting individual rights in the face of the government's malfeasance".

Patel agreed. She said: "The purpose of class action litigation is to allow large groups of people to get redress and to seek justice from federal court. Otherwise you're in a situation where poor people or people who have less access to courts are actually unable to get some remedy."

Class action suits also allow plaintiffs to seek "injunctive relief", which means the court's remedy to a given complaint would apply to the entire class that leveled the complaint. In the case of the Floyd suit, the plaintiffs are seeking "systemic relief".

"We're seeking an end to the unconstitutional practice of stop-and-frisk," Patel said. "We don't say in our lawsuit that stop-and-frisk is never appropriate, but the problem is the way the New York police department uses stop-and-frisk. It is inherently race-based and biased and leads to thousands and thousands of unconstitutional stops."

Kelly once described stop-and-frisks as a "dubious practice" that "sowed new seeds of community mistrust". But now he vigorously defends the policy, arguing that stop-and-frisks have led to a decline in murders. With the support of Bloomberg, Kelly has contended that racial disparities in stop-and-frisk figures correspond to racial differences in crime suspects.

An analysis of NYPD stop-and-risk figures released by the New York Civil Liberties Union last week found that in six out of the 10 precincts with the lowest numbers of black and Latino people in the city, black and Latino citizens represented over 70% of those stopped.

The stops were distributed unevenly throughout the city's precincts, with the highest total – 31,100 – reported in the impoverished, predominantly black neighborhood of East New York and the fewest – 2,023 – reported in the increasingly gentrified neighborhood of Greenpoint. Black and Latino New Yorkers accounted for more than half of the stops in 70 out of 76 of the city's precincts, while in 33 precincts they accounted for more than 90%. In five precincts that figure climbed to 98%.

According to NYCLU's analysis of the department's data, the substantial increase in stop-and-frisks 600% over the last decade has not corresponded to the substantial increase in guns seized. The NYCLU noted that 524,873 more stop-and-frisks were reported in 2011 than 2003, but a mere 176 more guns were seized last year, amounting to an increased recovery rate of 0.0003% (three one hundredths of one percent). In fact, a suspicion of "violent crime" was listed in only 10.5% of last year's stops.

Judge Scheindlin has pointed to a sworn affidavit from state senator Eric Adams, formerly an NYPD officer of 22 years, who alleges that Kelly once said stop-and-frisks are intended to serve as a psychological tool applied specifically to black and Latino communities. Adams told the Guardian that the commissioner made the comment during a 2010 meeting challenging the department's use of a stop-and-frisk database.

According to Adams, Kelly said: "He wanted to instil the fear in black and Hispanic youths that every time they leave their homes they will feel that they could be stopped and searched by the police."

The New York City police department and the office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not respond to requests for comment on this article.

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