A federal judge on Tuesday struck down a key component of the New York Police Department’s aggressive stop-and-frisk program, under which police stopped more young black men in 2011 than the city’s total population of young black men.
In the first federal court decision to find that some elements of the program violate the Fourth Amendment, U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin held that police officers in the Bronx are routinely stopping individuals outside private residential buildings without reasonable suspicion that they are trespassing, and with great consequence:
For those of us who do not fear being stopped as we approach or leave our own homes or those of our friends and families, it is difficult to believe that residents of one of our boroughs live under such a threat.
The stops are part of the Trespass Affidavit Program, also known as “Clean Halls,” in which property managers in the Bronx can ask the police to patrol their buildings and arrest trespassers. Scheindlin found that officers have misconstrued the program as allowing stops for anyone outside these properties, without regard for whether there is evidence that they are actually trespassing. Scheindlin describes the story of one of the name plaintiffs in the case:
[A]fter finishing his work for the day as a security guard, Charles Bradley, a black fifty-one year old resident of the Bronx, took the subway to visit his fiancée, Lisa Michelle Rappa, as they had arranged the evening before.
When Bradley arrived at Rappa’s apartment building, a young man who lived on the first floor and knew of Bradley’s and Rappa’s relationship let Bradley into the building. Bradley then walked up the stairs to Rappa’s apartment on the fifth floor and knocked. Because Rappa is deaf in one ear, Bradley waited a minute or two. When there was still no response, he returned downstairs and left the building. Outside, he looked up toward Rappa’s window.
While Bradley was standing on the sidewalk, an unmarked green police van approached and an officer in the passenger seat … gestured for Bradley to come over. After Bradley approached the van, the officer got out and asked, “What are you doing here?”
Bradley explained he was there to see Rappa, and that he worked as a security guard. Bradley testified that the officer responded to his attempts to explain his presence by suggesting Bradley was acting “like a fucking animal,” searched Bradley’s pockets, then told Bradley to place his hands behind his back. Once Bradley was handcuffed, the officer placed him in the van, where there were two other officers. While the van drove away, the officers began to question Bradley: “When was the last time you saw a gun? When was the last time you got high? When was the last time you bought some drugs?”
After twenty or thirty minutes in the van, the officers stopped at the station house. Bradley was taken into a room, stripped, and told to wait. He was searched in “inappropriate areas.” For the next two hours, he waited in a cell with other people who had been arrested. He was then fingerprinted and given a desk appearance ticket and a date to appear in court to answer the criminal charge of trespassing. Later, Bradley’s defense attorney provided the Bronx DA’s office with a notarized letter from Rappa stating that Bradley had been visiting her. “[A]t that point in time,” Bradley testified, “paperwork was submitted to me stating that the People of New York declined to prosecute.”
This encounter in and of itself is a disturbing example of how these police stops play out – resulting not just in an unreasonable stop and interrogation, but in subsequent harassing treatment such as strip-searching, detention, and verbal intimidation that far exceeds the scope of any perceived threat.
But perhaps the most significant aspect of the 157-page opinion is Judge Scheindlin’s explanation of the even greater potential cost for people not fortunate enough to have a public defender like Bradley’s:
The stakes of “field interrogation” by the police have dramatically risen since Terry [v. Ohio, which established the legal standard for stop and frisks,] was decided in 1968. The use of incarceration has increased, sentences have grown, the threat of lengthy incarceration has created new incentives to plead guilty, and the collateral consequences of a conviction — on employment, housing, access to government programs, and even the right to vote or serve on a jury — have become more common and more severe. If an unjustified stop happens to lead to an unjustified arrest for trespassing, as it did in Charles Bradley’s case, not every overburdened public defender will have the wherewithal to obtain a notarized letter from the defendant’s host explaining that the defendant was invited, as Bronx Defender Cara Suvall did on behalf of Bradley. When considering the relative hardships faced by the parties, it is important to consider the potentially dire and long-lasting consequences that can follow from unconstitutional stops.
This ruling is only a preliminary injunction, meaning the judge found the plaintiffs are likely to succeed in their case, with an order that police cease performing trespass stops without reasonable suspicion, and a forthcoming hearing on other potential remedies. The lawsuit filed by a class of blacks and Latinos is one of three to challenge the city’s stop-and-frisk program. Since initial outrage over stark evidence that police racially profile in their stops and interrogations without any improvement in public safety outcomes, NYPD somewhat decreased the number of stop-and-frisks. But in the first nine months of 2012, the overwhelming majority — 87 percent — of the some 1,400 individuals stopped every day were black and Latino.