Judge OKs Class Action Suit, Says 'Overwhelming' Evidence Points to Unlawful Stop and Frisks

New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly about alleged 'lone wolf' terrorist Jose Pimentelon.

Finding the city's attitude "deeply troubling," a judge granted class action status Wednesday to a 2008 lawsuit accusing the New York Police Department of discriminating against blacks and Hispanics with its stop-and-frisk policies aimed at reducing crime.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan said in a written ruling that there was "overwhelming evidence" that a centralized stop-and-frisk program has led to thousands of unlawful stops. She noted that the vast majority of New Yorkers who are unlawfully stopped will never file a lawsuit in response, and she said class-action status was created for just these kinds of court cases.

When asked to comment on the judge’s class certification decision on Wednesday, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said, “It is what it is.”

Less than an hour later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the stop-and-frisk practices and quickly dismissed allegations that citywide unlawful stops were a substantial problem. “I don’t get that sense,” Bloomberg told reporters gathered in City Hall, “and when you do polling, my understanding is the polls show overwhelming support by the public.”

Class Action Suit Seeks Change in Policy

In order to certify a class, plaintiffs have to show that their circumstances are typical of the entire class and possess questions of fact and law common to all class members.

Plaintiffs define the class as everyone who has been stopped since January 2005 without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, including people who alleged they were stopped and frisked just because they were black or Latino. 

If the case had not received class certification, any remedy won would likely have been limited to the particular precincts in which they were stopped by police.  Now that class certification has been granted, whatever remedy is imposed by the court will be imposed city-wide.

By certifying the lawsuit as a class action now, Scheindlin widened the lawsuit from a case about four men alleging they were unlawfully stopped to a case where the NYPD’s entire stop-and-frisk program is now before the court. 

The lawsuit was brought by four named plaintiffs – all African-American men, ranging in age from the 20s to 40s, who said they were racially profiled and stopped without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in different parts of city. 

The class members are seeking injunctive relief, not money damages.

Plaintiffs lawyer Darius Charney of the Center for Constitutional Rights said, in the event a jury agrees that the NYPD is unlawfully stopping people and racially profiling blacks and Latinos, class members will likely request oversight of the NYPD by a federal court monitor. They also intend to ask for an end to what they describe as a “quota” system, which they argue pressures commanders and officers log a certain level of arrests, summonses and stops every reporting period.  Finally, Charney said class members will request re-training and tightened supervision over stop-and-frisk practices. 

In Rare Move, Judge Issues Opinion with Decision

Scheindlin said she found it "disturbing" that the city responded to the lawsuit by saying a court order to stop the practice would amount to "judicial intrusion," and that no injunction could guarantee that suspicionless stops would never occur or would only occur in a certain percentage of encounters.

"First, suspicionless stops should never occur," Scheindlin wrote. She said the police department'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."

She added that if the police department was engaging in a widespread practice of unlawful stops, then an injunction seeking to curb that practice is not the "judicial intrusion into a social institution" that the city claims it would be but "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."

The city law office said in a statement: "We respectfully disagree with the decision and are reviewing our legal options."

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has not yet confirmed whether his office is investigating allegations of unconstitutional stop and frisks, also refused to comment on the class certification decision or any possible investigation by his office.

“We’re not involved in that lawsuit, and when we have something to say on this issue, we will say something,” said Schneiderman.

Plaintiffs’’ attorney Charney was pleased with the decision. He said it “reinforces that this is a citywide problem the NYPD needs to address."

The Police Department said it made 601,055 street stops of potential suspects last year, with about 10 percent of the stops resulting in arrests. In 2009, there were 575,304 stops.

With the Associated Press

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