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Can I Sue for Stop and Frisk Profiling?


Stop and frisk. It's been common practice in America for decades, and was deemed legal by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1968 (Terry v. Ohio). In Terry, a police officer noticed three men walking back and forth in front of a store, repeatedly peering into the store's windows. The officer approached the three men, asked for their names, and frisked one of them. He found a gun for which the man had no permit. The defendants claimed that the frisk was unconstitutional, as the officer had no probable cause for conducting it.

The officer claimed that his experience told him the men were "casing" the store to commit a robbery; therefore, the search was reasonable. SCOTUS agreed with the officer, deciding that the justification for stop and frisk is to protect the police as well as nearby citizens. Within that scope, police may stop people who look suspicious and perform a non-intrusive frisk for weapons such as guns, knives, or clubs which present a danger to police and others. With this ruling, stop and frisk also became known as a "Terry stop."

In 2016, New York City is probably the most famous municipality running a stop and frisk program, though Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia also practice stop and frisk.

What is Stop and Frisk?

Stop and frisk is not the same as stop and search. To perform a frisk, an officer need only have a reasonable suspicion that the person is armed. When frisking the suspect, the officer performs a pat-down searching for weapons. A search can be performed when the officer has reasonable suspicion that a crime has either occurred or is occurring. However, if the officer discovers a weapon during a stop and frisk encounter, he or she now has probable cause to perform a full search.

What is Stop and Frisk Racial Profiling?

While there is no legal definition of racial profiling, it is generally accepted that it refers to law enforcement targeting individuals based on race. This often takes the form of stop and frisk or "driving while brown/black." For example, a 2002 study on racial profiling included statistics on a stretch of highway running from Florida to New England. Though African Americans made up only 17 percent of drivers on this highway, they accounted for over 70 percent of all vehicle searches. In New York's stop and frisk program, non-whites comprise 84 percent of all encounters.

Your Rights if You've Suffered Racial Profiling

If you believe you've been the victim of racial profiling, you do have some recourse. To begin, if you can prove you were subjected to arrest and search based on your race rather than facts that could lead to reasonable suspicion of a crime, you may be able to keep any evidence gathered during the search out of court. This is called a "motion to suppress" and is allowed under the exclusionary rule.

You may also be able to file a civil suit against the officer or officers, as well as the municipality employing them. If you win a civil suit, you're eligible for monetary damages, possibly both compensatory and punitive damages.

New York and Stop and Frisk

New York City has seen a great deal of public pressure to drop their stop and frisk tactics. The previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, fully supported stop and frisk and credited it with New York's declining homicide rate. The city's citizens, however, disagree, citing the fact that out of 532,911 stops conducted in 2012, only 32,206 resulted in arrest.

There is also a great deal of controversy surrounding the racial profiling, as 53 percent of those stops are perpetrated against African Americans and 31 percent against Latinos. In 2013, the City Council listened to the citizens demanding change, and passed legislation with veto-proof majorities. The result is Local Law 71, which the police union, PBA challenged, stating it would infringe on their ability to perform their duty and bankrupt the city in unjustified lawsuits.

Proponents of the law argued it would protect citizens against racial profiling while also improving the quality and results of these stop and frisk encounters. In 2014, the New York State Supreme Court upheld the City Council's actions and the Community Safety Act, rejecting the arguments that its language was too vague and that state criminal procedure preempted it. Justice Anil Singh's decision stated that it did not "prevent police officers from continuing to stop, question and frisk" it only curtailed use of race as sole basis for making such stops.

Contact a Civil Rights Attorney

If you believe you were racially targeted for stop and frisk, contact an attorney for a free consultation. Look for one with experience handling cases involving civil rights and police misconduct.