Why 'Stop and Frisk' Was Ruled Unconstitutional

The Rev. Al Sharpton, center, walks with demonstrators during a silent march to end the "stop-and-frisk" program in New York, Sunday, June 17, 2012. (National Journal)

A U.S. District Court judge has ruled that New York's controversial practice of "stop and frisk" is unconstitutional, on grounds that it unfairly singles out racial groups.

The policy allows police officers to stop, question, and possibly search a person if the officer has suspicions that person has or may commit a crime. The policy was invoked 4.4 million times between 2004 and 2012, according to the judge's ruling. And it has been effective. The Atlantic recently reported that "in 2011, 770 guns were recovered across New York during frisks. That amounts to a 30 percent increase over 2003, when 594 guns were recovered."

But here's what has raised eyebrows, and prompted the litigation: In that 2004-2012 time frame, 80 percent of those stopped in New York City were black or Hispanic. In 2010, blacks and Hispanics made up about 50 percent of the city's population.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin put it in no unclear terms as to why the program should be reevaluated. Regardless of how well the policy works, she wrote in an opinion Monday, it violates constitutional protections. The decision, in all, is 195 pages long, but the following passage sums up the sentiment:

It is important to recognize the human toll of unconstitutional stops. While it is true that any one stop is a limited intrusion in duration and deprivation of liberty, each stop is also a demeaning and humiliating experience. No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life. Those who are routinely subjected to stops are overwhelmingly people of color, and they are justifiably troubled to be singled out when many of them have done nothing to attract the unwanted attention. Some plaintiffs testified that stops make them feel unwelcome in some parts of the city, and distrustful of the police. This alienation cannot be good for the police, the community, or its leader. Fostering trust and confidence between the police and the community would be an improvement for everyone.

In July, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly took to the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages to defend the program, pointing to how murders are down 29 percent over last year, which had the lowest rates in half a century. He called the racial-profiling charges against the police force "disingenuous," citing how the reduction in crime has the greatest positive impact on minority communities.

But Scheindlin didn't care that the program was effective. After all, she reasoned, it would be a lot easier to capture criminals if police routinely resorted to illegal means.

I emphasize at the outset, as I have throughout the litigation, that this case is not about the effectiveness of stop and frisk in deterring or combating crime. This Court's mandate is solely to judge the constitutionality of police behavior, not its effectiveness as a law-enforcement tool. Many police practices may be useful for fighting crime — preventative detention or coerced confessions, for example — but because they are unconstitutional they cannot be used, no matter how effective.

Along with the ruling came some "remedies" for what ails stop and frisk. Scheindlin ordered a pilot program for officers to wear cameras to monitor their interactions with others, and community meetings centered around reforms.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said the city would appeal such a ruling (WYNC has a good roundup of all the mayoral candidates' responses to the decision). Later on Monday, the Mayor's office tweeted this response:

Mayor: Our crime strategies and tools - including Stop, Question & Frisk - have made New York the safest big city in America.

— NYC Mayor's Office (@NYCMayorsOffice) August 12, 2013