Stop-And-Frisk in Floyd v. The City of New York: How the Policy Unjustly Targets Minorities

On August 12th 2013, Judge Shira Scheindlin’s ruling in the New York Court of Appeals sparked controversy when finding that the New York City Police Department’s use of stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional. Stop-and-frisk is often regarded as a tool for crime reduction, but its history in the United States is long and complicated. During the 1990s, the NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton implemented a city wide stop, question, and frisk policy. During Mayor Rudy Giuliani's fight against NYPD high crime rates, each precinct in the city was required to show some form of active combat against crime, which was manifested through the stop-and-frisk policies. The pressure to provide concrete crime reduction statistics lead to less questioning and an increased number of more aggressive stop-and-frisks. According to an NYPD sergeant, “You have to do the form because you need the number.”[1] The question of whether or not law enforcement can infringe on one’s Fourth Amendment right to protection against “unreasonable search and seizures” is far from new. Both Arizona v. Johnson (2009) and Vernonia School District 4J v. Acton (1995) establish, writ large, that one’s Fourth Amendment right to protection “against unreasonable searches and seizures” must be protected and if not, should hold law enforcement accountable for their unlawful actions.[2]

Terry v. Ohio established Supreme Court precedent for stop-and-frisk, as the basis for the rulings of both Arizona v. Johnson and Vernonia School District 4J v. Acton. In Terry v. Ohio, three convicts claimed that their Fourth Amendment rights were violated when their behavior led a plain-clothed police officer to stop-and-frisk them. The justices held that stop-and-frisk was constitutional as long as two conditions are met: “[the] officer reasonably suspects that the person apprehended is committing or has committed a crime” and “the officer must suspect that the person is armed and dangerous.”[3] In theory, a law enforcement officer should be able to utilize their expertise to determine whether or not a person is suspect enough to warrant a stop-and-frisk. Yet, in practice, this notion becomes much more complicated and is much more nuanced than what is posited by the law. The officer who frisked Terry was even quoted saying in court, “Now, in this case, when I looked over, they didn't look right to me at the time.”[4] Thus, how can there be a reconciliation of gut instinct, or someone who “didn’t look right” with internal biases, such as those caused by systematic and individualized racism? The reality is that the troubling tensions between one’s reasonability to suspect a criminal and that of implicit bias are unclear and, at times, neglected by the court.

In Floyd v. The City of New York, Judge Shira Scheindlin found through their excessive use of stop-and-frisk, especially against minorities, the NYPD was guilty of racial profiling and unconstitutional stops. In her opinion, Judge Scheindlin wrote: “The NYPD’s practice of making stops that lack individualized reasonable suspicion has been so pervasive and persistent as to become not only a part of the NYPD’s standard operating procedure, but a fact of daily life in some New York City neighborhoods.”[5] The ambiguity to the phrase “lack of individualized reasonable suspicion”[6] is the defining factor for what makes the premise behind stop-and-frisk so dangerous and problematic, as it allows for law enforcement officers the discretion to target these stops to marginalized groups. However, despite this injustice, Judge Scheindlin did not rule that the NYPD had to completely disband its stop-and-frisk department, but she instead appointed an independent monitor to help facilitate changes. While appointing a monitor may be a first step to holding law enforcement accountable for their seemingly targeted stop-and-frisk policies, there must be more permanent standards to guide officers by strict guidelines of accountability rather than maintaining their systemic and internal biases.

Those that support stop-and-frisk hold that “one general interest is, of course, that of effective crime prevention and detection; it is this interest which underlies the recognition that a police officer may…..approach a person for purposes of investigating possibly criminal behavior. Preventing crime, of course, is in everyone’s best interest.”[7] Yet, these proponents must consider that by systematically targeting a group of people, it promotes the public’s inherent animosity and distrust of law enforcement, which can and will only lead to heightened tensions between individuals and the police force. A justice in the opinion from Union Pacific Railway v. Bolton writes in regards to the Fourth Amendment, "No right is held more sacred...unless by clear and unquestionable authority of law.” By practicing stop-and-frisk with no clear standards as to who meets the qualifications other than by the color of one’s skin, the NYPD not only destabilizes communities but also simultaneously manages to delegitimize themselves.

[1] Naspretto, Ernie. “The Real History of Stop-and-Frisk .” NY Daily News, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, 3 June 2012, www.nydailynews.com/opinion/real-history-stop-and-frisk-article-1.1088494.

[2] Arizona v. Johnson.

[3] Terry v. Ohio.

[4] Terry v. Ohio.

[5] Floyd v. City of New York.

[6] Floyd v. City of New York.

[7] Terry v. Ohio