New York Federal Judge Rules Stop-and-Frisk Program Unconstitutional

Judge Shira Sheindlin of the Federal District Court in Manhattan made a landmark decision in the stop-and-frisk controversy on Tuesday, January 8, 2013, by ruling that the practice was unconstitutional. Judge Sheindlen made the ruling in Ligon v. New York, which directly challenged the Operation Clean Halls or Trespass Affidavit Program (TAP) and is one of multiple cases challenging NYPD’s overall stop-and-frisk policy.

The judge said in her ruling that drawing the line between public safety and unconstitutionality may be difficult, but “the NYPD has systematically crossed it when making trespass stops outside TAP buildings in the Bronx.” She called the stop-and-frisk policy a “threat” to residents of OCH/TAP buildings and their visitors. As a result, she ordered the police to halt any and all trespass stops that were not justified by reasonable suspicion – a legal standard that requires more than just entering or leaving a building, or moving quickly in or around it.

A hearing will be set to better determine the limits of the stop-and-frisk, and will probably require a specific NYPD policy that describes the designated circumstances in which a stop-and-frisk for trespassing will be legally permissible. Depending on the outcome of this hearing with NYPD, this ruling against the unreasonable TAP searches is a victory for the Fourth Amendment. Every citizen may have a right to reasonable public safety, but that does not mean that the constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure should be forfeited.

Additionally, despite the claims that the suspicious stop-and-frisks were increasing the safety of specific neighborhoods while decreasing crime, the statistical evidence showed otherwise. During the recent 600% increase of stop-and-frisks, nine out of 10 of the suspects were adjudicated not guilty. The district attorney’s office even greatly reduced the number of stop-and-frisk cases it would prosecute due to the rising number of disturbing reports involving tenants and their legal guests being arrested outside their own buildings.

This suggests that the threat to safety which NYPD claims exists in and around these TAP buildings is either nonexistent or much smaller than previously implied. It could also mean the practice of stop-and-frisk is just plain ineffective. Regardless, one thing is clear: NYPD’s stop and frisk policy was unconstitutional and had no place in our city. Judge Scheindlin said in her ruling that “the public interest in liberty and dignity under the Fourth Amendment trumps whatever modicum of added safety might theoretically be gained from NYPD making unconstitutional trespass stops outside TAP buildings in theBronx.”

As a Queens criminal defense attorney, it’s part of my job to hold the line on civil liberties for my clients. Tuesday’s ruling is a victory for justice and a victory for civil liberties.