A federal judge sharply critical of New York City police tactics granted class-action status to a lawsuit claiming officers’ stop-and-frisk policy discriminates against blacks and Latinos.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan said in a written ruling that there was "overwhelming evidence" that the centralized stop-and-frisk program 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.
The ruling comes on the heels of last weekend’s revelation by the Police Department that 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. Police conducted more than 200,000 frisk searches in the first three months of this year, it said.
Thousands of people who were stopped could now join the lawsuit, originally filed in 2008 by four plaintiffs.
The lawsuit alleged that the Police Department purposefully engaged in a widespread practice of concentrating its stop-and-frisk activity on black and Latino neighborhoods based on their racial composition rather than legitimate non-racial factors. The lawsuit said officers are pressured to meet quotas as part of the program and are punished if they do not.
Scheindlin said she found it "disturbing" that the city responded to the lawsuit by saying that a court order to stop the practice would amount to "judicial intrusion" and that an injunction couldn't guarantee the end of “suspicionless” stops.
"First, suspicionless stops should never occur," Scheindlin wrote. She said the 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 called it "rather audacious" of the Police Department to argue that legislators already would have passed necessary laws if it were possible to protect people from unlawful searches and seizures.
She added that if the 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."
Darius Charney, who argued the case on behalf of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit legal organization, said: "We're very pleased. We think she clearly got everything right on the law."
This article includes reporting by NBCNewYork.com and msnbc.com's Jim Gold.
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