Part of New York City's stop and frisk policy ruled unconstitutional

Recently, a federal judge ruled a portion of New York City's controversial stop and frisk policy unconstitutional. Undeterred, New York City plans to appeal the ruling. The federal judge's ruling was one of three federal challenges to the policy. The federal judge found that the policy violated the civil liberties of residents who were stopped for trespass because police lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop.

The Fourth Amendment and reasonable stops

The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. To conduct a reasonable search or seizure police usually first need to obtain a warrant; however, there are certain circumstances when a warrant is not required for police to conduct a reasonable search or seizure. One of those exceptions is known as a Terry stop, named after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Under a Terry stop, a police officer who reasonably believes that criminal activity may be in progress or has occurred in a public place may stop the suspected person and conduct a limited search of the person's outer clothing for weapons. The officer may also ask the suspect for identification, but the suspect does not have to produce it. However, a suspect's refusal to produce identification together with surrounding events may create probable cause to arrest. New York City's "stop and frisk" policy is based on the warrantless Terry stop.

The stop and frisk policy itself refers to a strategy used by New York City police officers to supposedly reduce crime in an area by stopping and searching people police consider suspicious. According to the New York Times, in 2011 nearly 700,000 stops were conducted and the number is thought to have risen in 2012. The use of the policy is controversial because the majority of stops do not result in the unearthing of criminal wrongdoing. In addition, those opposed to the policy say police unfairly target young black and Latino men who make up 85 percent of the stops according to the New York Times.

Federal judge's ruling on New York's stop and frisk policy

A federal judge in May 2011 found that the city's own records demonstrated that a significant number of the stops failed to meet the constitutional standard for a stop-reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is underfoot. Instead, the judge found officers cited a lesser hurdle of "furtive" motives, or in other words police believed residents were acting sneaky. In January 2013, as referenced above, a federal judge ruled the New York Police Department's tactic of stopping people suspected of trespassing outside private buildings unconstitutional. The ruling was specific to private residential buildings in the Bronx enrolled in the Trespass Affidavit Program. Under the program, property managers ask police to patrol the buildings for trespassers.

Police argue the program is a useful tool to enforce a peaceful setting in buildings that lack doormen and where residents confront drug sales and disorder in shared areas. In the ruling, the federal judge explained that it wasn't enough for an officer to spot a person entering or exiting a building in a high-crime area to warrant a stop. New York City plans to appeal the ruling and the judge's order preventing the police from the practice.

Residents who were subjected to the stops explained in the federal lawsuit that they felt like they lived in a police state where they were forced to carry identification while doing normal tasks, such as getting the mail. The cessation of the trespass stops might be the impetus to terminate the entire stop and frisk policy. If you have been the target of a stop and frisk stop or have been the subject of another governmental act you believe is illegal, contact a criminal defense attorney to protect your rights.