In a decision issued today that could potentially change the way police operate in the Big Apple, U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin (S.D.N.Y.) ruled that, for years, New York City police officers have been systematically stopping innocent people in the street without any objective reason to suspect that they were engaged in any kind of wrongdoing. The 195-page decision, issued after a lengthy trial, accuses the NYPD of a widespread disregard for the Fourth Amendment – particularly as the “stop-and-frisk” episodes soared in number over the last decade. To address the issue, Judge Scheindlin said she planned to designate an independent private attorney as a monitor for the police department’s compliance with the Constitution.
Judge Scheindlin’s ruling is a brave rebuke to the department’s increasingly aggressive policing policies.During the two-month trial, the court heard testimony regarding some 4.3 million stops between 2004 and mid-2012. The U.S. Supreme Court has long sanctioned stopping and frisking an individual based upon reasonable suspicion that he or she is engaged in wrongdoing. But experts testified in the trial that in about 88 percent of the stops, police found no contraband or other evidence of illegal behavior – an incidence so high that it suggests that there was no credible basis on which to stop many of those individuals in the first place.
Given that the individuals in question were usually young minority men, a policing policy that essentially permitted police to treat as suspicious behavior that was perfectly innocent had the effect of watering down the Constitution’s protection against illegal searches and seizures. In her ruling, Judge Scheindlin rejected the testimony of numerous police officers and commanders who typically defended the legality of stops and said that they were made only when officers reasonably suspected criminal behavior.
Judge Scheindlin’s ruling in the case comes on the heels of what some have characterized as an effort by the administration of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg to influence the judge or to create some kind of extrajudicial bias against her ruling in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (which will doubtless be hearing an appeal of this decision). In June, the mayor’s office offered to a number a press outlets a “study” it had conducted that purported to show that Judge Scheindlin grants motions to suppress evidence for constitutional violations in a much higher percentage of criminal cases than do her colleagues in the Southern District of New York. Today’s decision certainly makes clear that Judge Scheindlin was not influenced by those communications in favor of the city, and it is left to be seen whether press reports on that study will have the unlikely consequence of influencing the appellate court.
Judge Scheindlin’s decision is important because it seeks to address constitutional violations on an institutional level and also because it addresses those violations that befall individuals who are not charged with any crime. In a case in which a person faces criminal charges, he or she usually can challenge the admission of physical evidence or his or her own statements based on a claimed violation of constitutional rights, and a favorable ruling will result in the exclusion of that evidence from any trial on those charges. But for a person whose civil rights are violated by an illegal search that results in no criminal charges, the recourse is less obvious.
While there are circumstances in which an individual could sue individual police officers based on an illegal search, the burdens of litigation and the proof required usually are high enough that few if any people pursue such cases. Indeed, a police department policy that encouraged officers to engage in searches of questionable legality appears to rely on those disincentives to protect the officers and the department from liability and scrutiny. By finding an institution-wide set of violations, and by imposing a requirement that an independent monitor ensure compliance, Judge Scheindlin’s ruling (if upheld on appeal) has the potential to provide a more reliable guarantee of constitutional rights to New Yorkers.
If some will decry the decision as threatening the ability of police to control crime, they have forgotten the historical lessons about the importance of safeguarding the rights of minorities in our country, and the important role that the Constitution plays in protecting the rights of the innocent.