Civil Rights, New York

The beginning of the end of stop-and-frisk

Few people were paying attention, but last Friday a federal judge dealt what’s likely the final blow against stop-and-frisk, the controversial police practice of stopping and pat-searching without meeting the constitutional standard.

That’s right. Despite what you may have heard, stop-and-frisk is constitutional. The problem has arisen—and exploded—since the New York City Police Department began to ignore flagrantly and systematically the Supreme Court’s mandate: a police officer needs “reasonable suspicion” before stopping and frisking anyone. Any other standard is illegal.

But the debate of what the police may or may not do will soon cease. With Friday’s order, which dismissed a petition by Mayor Bloomberg to strike a judgment by Judge Shira Scheindlin—who determined that the NYPD did violate the constitutional rights of thousands of blacks and Hispanics—the case is over. The city sought to strike the judgment because, it argued, the judge was not impartial in her judgment, but unduly prejudged the facts.

The federal appellate court rejected the city’s argument. According to the court, Judge Scheindlin’s ruling still stands, even though it cannot go into effect until the appellate process ends.

What does this mean for New Yorkers? Procedurally, the case is still being appealed, but there won’t be oral arguments or an exchange of court documents between the parties until March of 2014.

This timing explains why stop-and-frisk has its days numbered. Mayor Bloomberg strategically sought an annulment of Judge Scheindlin’s order on ethics grounds before the end of his term in office. It was a last-ditch attempt to legitimize a practice that, in his view, has been a resounding success in reducing the city’s crime rate. Who cares about the constitutional rights of minorities.

But his request was denied, and now Bloomberg has no other legal avenue left to explore. The court forced him to wait to pursue his appeal until March. But since he leaves office on Dec. 31, that means the reins of the case belong to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who has promised to withdraw the appeal and launch deep reforms to stop-and-frisk.

There are other pending matters in the case, such as the removal of Judge Scheindlin—replaced by Judge Analisa Torres, who was recently appointed to the bench by President Obama—which has become a quasi-scandal in legal circles. And police unions have applied to the appellate court to join the case to defend the interests of police officers. But these are secondary matters.

What truly matters is that all legal efforts, social mobilization, and the promise of a new administration have coalesced perfectly in the fight against a practice that, without doubt, is unconstitutional. Friday’s order was the death blow.

It’s been a long process, but worth the while. The systemization of stop-and-frisk has its days numbered.

(A version of this column was originally published in Spanish in the print and online editions of New York’s El Diario.)

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