The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



Stopping ‘stop-and-frisk’

Shaaya Ellis | Wednesday, October 30, 2013

On Aug. 12, United States District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the New York City stop and frisk program was unconstitutional. The New York City stop-and-frisk program is a practice by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) whereby a police officer who reasonably suspects a person has committed, is about to commit or is committing a crime can stop that person and, if necessary, frisk them for any weapons. This process has come under scrutiny for failing to be a sufficient law enforcement tactic because it violates the constitutional right of law abiding New Yorkers.

According to NYPD records, in 2012, New Yorkers were stopped by the police 532,911 times but only 11 percent of the stops lead to an arrest. This means out of the nearly half-million New Yorkers stopped and frisked, 89 percent – or 473,611 – were innocent, and, most strikingly, 87 percent of those stopped were black or Latino. While some might say it purely logical for the majority of those stopped and frisked to be black or Latino since these people commit a substantial amount of the crime in New York City, most of the people stopped and frisked committed no crime at all.

The practice of stop-and-frisk violates the Fourth Amendment because one’s right to personal security is violated by an unreasonable search and seizure. It is unreasonable for the police to seize a person and subject him to a limited reach for weapons unless there is probable cause for an arrest. To be explicit, whenever a police officer waylays an individual such that their freedom to move freely is impaired, that person has been “seized.” Likewise, when a police officer is exploring the outer and inner rims of that person’s clothing, a search has taken place. From this we can conclude that when stop-and-frisk has transpired, a search and seizure has also transpired. Taking this into consideration, it suffices to say that NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy is clearly unconstitutional.

Proponents of the stop-and-frisk program claim that the program is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment and derives its constitutionality from the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio. In Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled the police may stop a person if they have a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed or is about to commit a crime, and they may frisk the suspect for weapons if they have reasonable suspicion that the suspect is armed without violating the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable search and seizures.

Stop-and-frisk might draw some distinction between the circumstances surrounding Terry v. Ohio, but there are stark differences. In Terry, the police officer had reasonable suspicion since the suspects were pacing along the street looking into a store window roughly 25 times. In the case of stop-and-frisk, the police presuppose that the suspect is guilty until proven innocent, which leads to a dismal arrest rate of a mere 11 percent. More importantly, the issue with stop-and-frisk is that the officers are not applying reasonable suspicion. Instead, according to a myriad of NYPD reports, furtive movements constitute reasonable suspicion.

Furtive movements are not reasonable suspicion and are not sufficient grounds for an unlawful stop-and-frisk. When Judge Scheindlin ruled NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program unconstitutional, she did not say it should be abolished. In her decision, Judge Scheindlin is simply instructing the city to ensure that the reasonable suspicion standard is applied in all instances where an individual is stopped and frisked.

Stop-and-frisk leads to unintended consequences that seek to turn law-abiding citizens into harden criminals. New Yorkers who believe that crime is reduced because of stop-and-frisk fail to realize the self-defeating consequence of this policy: Exposing non-criminals to a world in which law is not recognized and criminality is rewarded, in essence making more criminals. The grave invasion of an individual’s right to be secure on his papers and persons can invoke not only great indignity but also arouse strong resentment of the police and should not be underestimated.

It is well know that the Fourth Amendment prevents unlawful search and seizures. The stop-and-frisk method implored by the NYPD is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. The type of precedent stop-and-frisk sets is a very dangerous one to our constitutional republic. If the police deem it acceptable to stop and search someone without a warrant and without just cause, then what is stopping the police and the government from violating other rights afforded to us in our constitution?  

Adhering to the rule of law is paramount. Stop-and-frisk should either be reformed to abide by the supreme law of the land or entirely done away with. If an officer wants to conduct a stop-and-frisk, then the officer needs to have reasonable suspicion, probable cause or a warrant, otherwise New Yorkers should be left alone to enjoy the freedom afforded to every citizen in the United States Constitution.

Shaaya Ellis is a junior political science major with a classics minor. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.