A federal judge in New York has delivered a stinging blow to a racially biased police policy that leads to thousands of spurious arrests for minor marijuana offenses every year.
U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled on Aug. 12 that New York City’s controversial “stop and frisk” police tactic is unconstitutional. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the policy’s most vigorous enforcer, said the city would appeal.
The “Stop & Frisk” Law
By law, police officers are allowed to detain anyone on the street as long as they have reasonable suspicion the person is engaged in a crime. This is a much lower standard than the probable cause that is required before police can make an arrest or search a home.
Once the police have stopped someone, they can search the person’s outer clothing for weapons. This is called a “stop and frisk.” But while it’s generally allowed, Scheindin ruled the city was enforcing stop and frisks in a racially biased manner.
“Both statistical and anecdotal evidence showed that minorities are indeed treated differently than whites,” she said in her 198-page ruling. The program can continue, she said, but only under the strict eye of a federal monitor.
Marijuana Possession in New York City
Weed possession is the number one reason for arrest in New York City, and the stop and frisk may be the single biggest reason for that fact.
Possession of small amounts of pot is a violation, similar to a traffic ticket, in New York, as long as it’s kept out of sight. But once it comes into public view, in any amount, it becomes a criminal offense. Even someone who empties her pockets at the request of the police can be charged if marijuana is exposed.
Like the stop and frisk, weed arrests disproportionately affect blacks, latinos and other minorities. Nationwide, blacks are four times more likely than whites to be arrested, and in parts of New York City they’re 10 times more likely – despite the fact that both races smoke marijuana at the same rates.
Controversy of the Judge’s Ruling
Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly responded to the ruling by saying the department doesn’t discriminate. The judge, they said, doesn’t understand the necessities of law enforcement.
Her ruling is “a very dangerous decision made by a judge that, I think, does not understand how policing works,” Bloomberg said during a press conference in which he grew visibly irate toward reporters.
Scheindlin acknowledged law enforcement concerns, but said they don’t justify unconstitutional actions by the city.
“Many police practices may be useful for fighting crime – preventive detention or coerced confessions, for example – but because they are unconstitutional they cannot be used, no matter how effective.”
In addition to requiring a monitor, the judge said she will order a pilot program using body cameras on police officers and a “community-based joint remedial process,” among other other remedies.