Federal Court Finds Some NYPD Stops in the Bronx Unconstitutional

On January 8, 2013, a Federal Court in Manhattan found that the NYPD unconstitutionally stopped and questioned people without reasonable suspicion outside of certain private buildings in the Bronx and ordered a stop to the practice.  The ruling, by Judge Shira Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York, came after three weeks of testimony by people who were stopped and frisked, experts, the NYPD and the Bronx District Attorney.

Judge Scheindlin's opinion is important for a number of reasons. It marks the first major win in one of the three legal cases challenging the NYPD's stop and frisk program in New York City. It also adds momentum to a strengthening grassroots campaign to challenge biased police in New York through legislative and legal strategies. Finally, the decision gives credence to the voices of Bronx residents subjected to the humiliations and harassment of illegal policing.

Judge Scheindlin reflects on the inequality of the NYPD's Practices:

[W]hile it may be difficult to say where, precisely, to draw the line between constitutional and unconstitutional police encounters, such a line exists, and the NYPD has systematically crossed it when making trespass stops outside TAP buildings in the Bronx. For those of us who do not fear being stopped as we approach or leave our own homes or those of our friends and families, it is difficult to believe that residents of one of our boroughs live under such a threat.19 In light of the evidence presented at the hearing, however, I am compelled to conclude that this is the case.

The decision reviews the testimony of individual Bronx residents regarding their stops outside of Trespass Affidavit Program or "Clean Halls" buildings.  The program, initiated in the 1990's, simply provides a formalized way for private landlords to consent to allow police officers to enter and patrol the common areas of their buildings in order to deter crime.  However, the decision makes clear that the program was wrongly seen as allowing the police greater rights to stop and question people in and outside of these buildings, to uncover trespassing or other crimes.

The results of the NYPD stopping people without suspicion simply because they are outside of one of these buildings is made starkly clear through the testimony summarized in the decision. The decision recounts the story of one of the witnesses, a 50-year old man who went to visit his fiancee in her building. After knocking on her door and waiting for to answer, the man left the building and waited outside.

While [the man] was standing on the sidewalk, an unmarked green police van approached and an officer in the passenger seat — later identified as Officer Miguel Santiago — gestured for [him] to come over.101 After [he] approached the van, the officer got out and asked, “What are you doing here?” [He] explained he was there to see [his fiancee], and that he worked as a security guard. [The man] testified that the officer responded to his attempts to explain his presence by suggesting [he] was acting “like a fucking animal,” searched [his] pockets,104 then told [him] to place his hands behind his back.

The decision then recounts how the man was taken to the station house, strip-searched, held for hours and released with a ticket to appear in court for trespassing. Further, the police officer lied on the paperwork documenting the man's arrest to justify what was an unconstitutional stop and arrest lacking the constitutionally required individual suspicion of wrongdoing.

As a result of the ruling, the NYPD was immediately ordered to stop its practice of illegal stops outside of "clean halls" buildings in the Bronx.  Judge Scheindlin set aside additional remedies to be decided together with the the other two major cases challenging stop and frisk, Floyd v. New York and Davis v. New York

Floyd, a class action lawsuit on behalf of New Yorkers illegal stopped and frisked by the NYPD, goes to trial on March 11th. Davis challanges the illegal stops of New Yorkers in public housing and is also currently ongoing. As the cases proceed, more legislators continue to sign on to support the Community Safety Act in the New York City Council which would curtail biased policing by the NYPD.

To get involved in the movement against stop and frisk in New York, sign up for updates from Communities United For Police Reform's website and get the latest on Twitter from @changethenypd.

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