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Court Case Winds Down In New York's Stop-And-Frisk Challenge

May 20, 2013
Originally published on May 20, 2013 9:11 am

Closing arguments are set to take place Monday in the federal class action trial involving New York City's stop-and-frisk policy. The trial has been going on for two months in Manhattan.

Plaintiffs in Floyd v. City of New York claim the New York Police Department, its supervisors and its union pressured police officers to stop, question and frisk hundreds of thousands of people each year, even establishing quotas. They argue that 88 percent of the stops involved blacks and Hispanics, mostly men, and were in fact a form of racial profiling.

The police and the city argued that these policies were goals, not quotas, and have made New York the safest big city in America.

"I can't imagine any rational person saying that the techniques are not working and that we should stop them," says Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The city also argued that these stops took place in high crime areas where the crime was often black on black or Hispanic on Hispanic. As NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly told public radio station WNYC: "Ninety-six percent of the shooting victims in New York City are black or Hispanic. Crime is down in this city in the last two decades 80 percent."

Joseph Esposito, who was NYPD's chief until this year, testified at the trial that he had heard no complaints about racial profiling.

That brought Judge Shira Scheindlin up short: You never heard that from any community groups? she asked.

But plaintiffs like Nicholas Pert and David Ourlicht told NPR a different story.

"I remember squad cars pulling up; they just pulled up aggressively, and the cops came out with their guns drawn," Pert says.

"Threw me against the wall," Ourlicht says. "Took everything out of my pockets, threw it on the floor, dumped my bag on the floor, my books and everything."

"It left me embarrassed, humiliated and upset," Pert adds.

Other testimony by whistle-blowing cops provided recordings at the trial where supervisors told officers to push up the number of stops.

"The police are told to get numbers," says Jonathan Moore, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "This is not what stop-and-frisk should be. Stop-and-frisk is a legitimate tool for law enforcement to use. It should not be the way you measure an officer's future in the New York City Police Department."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that very few of the stops led to arrests or even the discovery of illegal guns. And even though the number of stops went down significantly in 2012, there were almost 5 million stops in 10 years.

Plaintiffs are asking Judge Scheindlin to put the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policies under judicial oversight, something the city and the NYPD definitely oppose.

The trial is really about two different questions. Police have the authority to stop someone, but at what point does that stop and that search violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution? Secondly, is the pattern of stop-and-frisk a form of racial profiling?

Ian Weinstein, a law professor at Fordham University, says stop-and-frisk can only be used if there is a suspicion of a crime. If the judge finds there is a pattern of exceeding lawful authority, "particularly to frisk someone for weapons, and to search — in other words, go in pockets, ask them to empty a bag — that is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. That would justify an oversight commission, different sorts of remedies that the plaintiffs have proposed, without addressing the question of racial discrimination and racial profiling."

Proving racial profiling is much harder, Weinstein says. "You have to show intent, and that can be difficult to prove."

Standards of proof have become more demanding, he says, and the culture of race claims has shifted over 20 years.

"Courts are less receptive, the society is less receptive, and we see this in the Supreme Court's movement," Weinstein says.

Closing arguments are expected to take all of Monday, and the judge's ruling is not expected for several months.

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Lawyers make closing arguments today in a challenge to a basic part of New York City police work. The city's police follow a policy called Stop and Frisk. Cops on the street do exactly that - questioning and searching people on the street. They've done it almost five million times over the last decade. What made this the subject of a court case is that most of the five million were black or Hispanic men. The federal class action case alleges racial profiling.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: The plaintiffs in Floyd vs. the City of New York, the federal class action trial in Manhattan, claim the New York Police Department, its supervisors and even its union, pressured police officers to stop, question and frisk hundreds of thousands of people each year, even establishing quotas. They argue that 88 percent of the stops involved blacks and Hispanic's, mostly men, and were in fact, a form of racial profiling.

The police and the city argued that that these policies were goals, not quotas, and it made the city the safest big city in America. Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: I can't imagine any rational person saying that the techniques are not working and that we should stop them.

ADLER: The city also argued that these stops took place in high crime areas, where the crime was often black on black or Hispanic on Hispanic. As NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly told public radio station WNYC...

RAY KELLY: Ninety-six percent of the shooting victims in New York City are black or Hispanic; crime in down in this city in the last two decades 80 percent.

ADLER: Joseph Esposito, who was chief of department of the NYPD until this year, testified recently at the trial that he had heard no complaints about racial profiling, bringing Judge Shira Scheindlin up short. You never heard that from any community group, she asked? But plaintiffs like Nicholas Pert and David Ourlicht told NPR a different story.

NICHOLAS PERT: I remember squad cars pulling up; they just pulled up aggressively, and the cops came out with their guns drawn.

DAVID OUCRLICHT: Threw me against the wall, took everything out of my pockets, threw it on the floor, and dumped my bag on the floor, and my books and everything.

PERT: It left me embarrassed, humiliated and upset.

ADLER: Other testimony by whistle-blowing cops provided recordings at the trial, where supervisors told officers to push up the number of stops. Plaintiff lawyer Jonathan Moore.

JONATHAN MOORE: The police are told to get numbers. This is not what Stop and Frisk should be. Stop and Frisk is a legitimate tool for law enforcement to use. It should not be the way you measure an officer's future in the New York City Police Department.

ADLER: Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued very few of the stops led to arrests or even the discovery of illegal guns. And even though the numbers of stops went down significantly in 2012, we're talking about almost five million stops in 10 years.

Plaintiffs are asking Judge Scheindlin to put the NYPD's Stop and Frisk policies under judicial oversight, something the city and the NYPD definitely oppose.

The trial is really about two different questions. Police have the authority to stop someone, but at what point does that stop and that search violate the 4th Amendment of the Constitution? Secondly, is the pattern of Stop and Frisk a form of racial profiling?

Ian Weinstein is a professor of law at Fordham University. He says Stop and Frisk can only be used if there is a suspicion of a crime. If the judge finds that there is a pattern of exceeding lawful authority...

IAN WEINSTEIN: Particularly to frisk someone for weapons, and to search, in other words, go in pockets, make them empty a bag, that's a clear violation of the 4th Amendment and that would justify an oversight commission, different sorts of remedies that the plaintiffs have proposed, without addressing the question of racial discrimination and racial profiling.

ADLER: Proving racial profiling is much harder, says Weinstein.

WEINSTEIN: You have to show intent, and that can be difficult to prove.

ADLER: Standards of proof have become more demanding, he says, and the culture of race claims has shifted over 20 years.

WEINSTEIN: Courts are less receptive, the society is less receptive, and we see this in the Supreme Court's movement.

ADLER: Closing arguments are expected to take the whole day. The judge's ruling is not expected for several months.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.