January 30, 2023
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NY police department ends tactic of prolonging stops to check for warrants

The New York City police department has reached a legal settlement that requires it to abandon a practice in which officers use prolonged street stops to check for arrest warrants and ties to other cases, a tactic critics denounced as “digital stop and frisk.”

Under the settlement, officers will only be permitted to conduct warrant searches during street stops if they have “reasonable suspicion” that the person stopped “was committing, committed or is about to commit” a crime or if there’s probable cause that they’ve done so.

The NYPD has revised its stop policy and is conducting training. The department sent a message to all officers notifying them of the change and is having it read at each shift’s roll call for 10 days. Violations could result in department discipline, according to the agreement.

The settlement resolves a 2019 class-action lawsuit that challenged the stops, often involving people of color, as an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on illegal detention and unlawful search and seizure. The Legal Aid Society, a public defender organization, filed the lawsuit with two outside law firms.

One plaintiff, Luis Rios, said the practice was an extension of the NYPD’s “racist Stop and Frisk program,” which was significantly curtailed after a judge ruled in 2013 that it was a form of indirect racial profiling. Another plaintiff, Terron Belle, said the NYPD’s lengthy stops were violating “the rights of other Black and Latinx people all over the city.”

“This lawsuit has always been about bringing justice to innocent New Yorkers who are baselessly detained in the street so aggressive NYPD officers can run their IDs,” said plaintiffs’ lawyer Cyrus Joubin.

Molly Griffard, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project, said the practice turned “each of these stops into an unrelated fishing expedition.”

A spokesperson for the city’s law department, Nicholas Paolucci, said the settlement agreement “was limited to these individual plaintiffs and does not indicate a broad issue.”

“The NYPD is committed to upholding the constitutional rights of individuals, and has agreed to clarify existing policy to make it clear when officers can run a warrant query during a detainment,” Paolucci said.

Some law enforcement unions and pro-police elected officials lamented the loss of a tactic that they say has been vital to getting suspected criminals off the streets.

“This is another decision that empowers criminals & prevents police from doing their jobs,” City Council Member Joann Ariola, a Queens Republican, said in a tweet shared by the city’s detectives’ union. “We need to make public safety a priority in this city, but this will virtually guarantee that dangerous criminals will be able to roam at will.”

Historically, police departments have used the suspicion of a relatively minor infraction — the smell of marijuana or a busted taillight, for example — as a pretext to dig into a person’s past, scouring databases for open warrants and what the NYPD calls investigation cards, or I-Cards.

The practice has been dramatized on TV shows like “Law & Order” and “NYPD Blue” and, critics say, has only been made easier with officers carrying smartphones that can instantly access to NYPD databases. In many cases, though, people who’ve been detained say they were doing nothing wrong and police had no reason to stop them.

Belle said four plainclothes officers surrounded him as he walked home from the subway and searched him. The officers told him they were looking for a gun, he said, and after not finding one, demanded his ID and conducted a warrant check.

Going forward, under the NYPD’s revised stop policy agreed to in the settlement: “Authority to detain a suspect ends when the tasks tied to the reason for the stop are completed or reasonably should have been completed.”

Under the agreement, the NYPD must train all officers in the new policy by Jan. 31. It will also pay $453,733 in damages and attorneys’ fees for the five named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The plaintiffs will each receive between $3,000 and $19,000.

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