Silent march on Father’s Day to end the NYPD's Stop and Frisk policy in New York City (Photo by Alangreig)

A judge in New York has ruled the New York Police Department must cease to perform “trespass stops” outside certain buildings in the Bronx without reasonable suspicion of trespass. The judge has determined the practice of “stop and frisks” is inherently unlawful or unconstitutional and should not be employed without “reasonable suspicion of trespass.”

Judge Shira Scheindlin outlined in her ruling, “In order for an officer to have ‘reasonable suspicion’ that an individual is engaged in criminal trespass, the officer must be able to articulate facts providing ‘a minimal level of objective justification for making the stop.’” This means, as she cited, they must have “something more than an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch.”

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by African-American and Latino residents of New York who argue the NYPD has a “widespread practice of making unlawful stops on suspicion of trespass outside buildings in the Bronx that are enrolled in the Trespass Affidavit Program (“TAP”), which was formerly known in the Bronx as Operation Clean Halls.” It is a program that permits “police officers to patrol inside and around thousands of private residential apartment buildings throughout New York City.”

Entering and exiting a building does not establish “reasonable suspicion of trespass, even if the building is located in a high crime area, and regardless of the time of day, the judge noted.

She found in favor of plaintiffs because the “public interest lies with the enforcement of the Constitution.”

It is “‘clear and plain’” that the public interest in liberty and dignity under the Fourth Amendment trumps whatever modicum of added safety might theoretically be gained from the NYPD making unconstitutional trespass stops outside TAP buildings in the Bronx. I am not ordering the abolition or even a reduction of TAP, which appears to be a valuable way of using the NYPD’s resources to enhance the security in voluntarily enrolled private buildings. My ruling today is directed squarely at a category of stops lacking reasonable suspicion. Precisely because these stops lack rational justification, they are presumably of less value to public safety than would be the stops of individuals who displayed objectively suspicious behavior. [emphasis added]

The judge determined after hearing evidence that the NYPD had been trained and officers had learned inappropriately to “stop and question first” and “develop reasonable suspicion later.”

The judge also outlined the “potential consequences of an unlawful stop” as a key factor in her decision. She stated that the stakes of “field interrogation” had risen dramatically in the past decades:

…The use of incarceration has increased, sentences have grown, the threat of lengthy incarceration has created new incentives to plead guilty, and the collateral consequences of a conviction — on employment, housing, access to government programs, and even the right to vote or serve on a jury—have become more common and more severe. If an unjustified stop happens to lead to an unjustified arrest for trespassing, as it did in Charles Bradley’s case, not every overburdened public defender will have the wherewithal to obtain a notarized letter from the defendant’s host explaining that the defendant was invited, as Bronx Defender Cara Suvall did on behalf of Bradley. When considering the relative hardships faced by the parties, it is important to consider the potentially dire and long-lasting consequences that can follow from unconstitutional stops…

To read the full judge’s decision of this critical ruling in defense of civil liberties, go here.