“No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life.” These were among the more poignant statements included by a U.S. District Judge, Shira Scheindlin, in her ruling that a New York City Police Department crime-prevention tactic known as “stop-and-frisk” is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Since taking office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had increased pressure of NYPD to increase the number of stops, and according to civil liberties groups, the stop-and-frisk program may have unfairly targeted minority groups. In the court ruling, Scheindlin referred to the technique as “indirect racial profiling,” which may have led to the stop and search of blacks and Hispanics numbering in the tens of thousands, Reuters News Service reported yesterday. Blacks and Hispanics comprise approximately half the New York City population, while close to 80 percent of the stop-and-frisk searches, numbering well over four million since being enacted in 2004, have involved such minority groups.
For many, it is hard to believe that a court ruling would have to strike down a measure that so blatantly ignores the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and requires judicial sanction of warrants for arrest which must be supported by probable cause. Stopping and searching random persons on a city street may have reduced crime, according to Bloomberg, but it also violated the rights of individuals, the majority of whom were likely not guilty of any illegal action.
The primary reason that stop-and-frisk had been targeted for review has to do with the disproportionate number of minorities those implementing the procedure had focused on. And yet, New York is not the only place where similar activities have been undertaken. On The Micah Hanks Program, there have been a number of incidents highlighted over the last several weeks, spanning several states, which calls into question whether people’s rights are being violated during police stops that involve searches. Four incidents that have made the news, two in Texas, one in Florida, and another in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have all called into question the necessity for genital searches during roadside stops, often where those being searched were stopped for speeding.
Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project recently told the New York Daily News that since remarkably similar–and unnecessarily invasive–searches have occurred in four different states, “means there is some sort of policy. It’s such a prohibited practice,” he said, calling such unwarranted searches “mind-boggling.”
What are the factors that contribute to such questionable behavior on part of law enforcement? As violent crime and gun-related deaths continue to be promoted as hot issues by the media, law enforcement agencies have no doubt responded by, in some instances, enacting more strict measures for prevention. However, the cavity searches that led to “probing” of the genitals of young women, mostly in their twenties, as the cases above illustrate, had involved drug searches, or simply exceeding the speed limit. In the latter of the two Texas incidents, dash cam footage revealed that the women who were submitted to searches had been stopped for speeding, and in the end, no ticket was even issued. As to what constituted “probable cause” and, thus, instigating gential searches performed on the women by a responding female officer, the male officer who pulled them over alleges that he had observed what appeared to be a cigarette being thrown out the window of the car prior to the stop.
To again borrow the words of U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in the stop-and-frisk ruling, “No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life.” And while carrying out the activities of daily life, occasionally accidents happen just as well… so the next time you end up being stopped for coasting a little too fast through a 35 zone at night, should you also be concerned about whether your actions will warrant an intrusive cavity search by law enforcement officers? To date, the question of whether or not these activities are in obvious violation of the Fourth Amendment has done little to curb such behavior thus far.
Instead, it appears that the new norm, rather than probable cause and warranted arrest, has been stripped down to “search and ask questions later.” In the case of the NY ruling against stop-and-frisk, while the greatest controversy has surrounded the issue of racial profiling, it does help set a precedent that this sort of activity, carried out by law enforcement against citizens who are not guilty of a crime, has been, and will remain unconstitutional. And that, whether or not the practice of stop-and-frisk was able to reduce crime rates, must remain true in order to preserve the principles of freedom upon which this country was founded.
Image by Longislandwins via Flickr.