A federal appeals court Thursday blocked a ruling curtailing the New York Police Department's "stop-and-frisk" program, an order that could rattle the New York City political landscape and reverberate in law-enforcement agencies nationwide.
The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 3-0 order, halted a U.S. District Court ruling that ordered a monitor to oversee the stop-and-frisk policy and alter a related training program. The city had appealed the ruling and asked the circuit court to stay any immediate effects of the lower-court ruling pending the appeal.
Under the stop-and-frisk program, the NYPD routinely stopped passersby, especially in high-crime neighborhoods, to pat them down for weapons even when there was limited reason to suspect wrongdoing. The technique has been criticized for disproportionately targeting blacks and Hispanics in poor areas.
In practical terms, Thursday's order means the NYPD can continue the stop-and-frisk practice until the higher court rules on the appeal.
In a court proceeding for a 1999 lawsuit on the stop-and-frisk tactic, Judge Scheindlin asked lawyers suing the city, "[I]f you got proof of inappropriate racial profiling in a good constitutional case, why don't you bring a lawsuit?" according to the appeals court's order. Some of the lawyers involved in that case ultimately brought the lawsuit against the city that led to Judge Scheindlin's ruling curtailing the program.
In a written statement Thursday, the judge noted she had agreed with the city on a key issue. "I sided with the City and directed the plaintiffs to bring a new action rather than a contempt proceeding," she said. "I said I would take the case as related because the plaintiffs charged that the City had violated my order in [the older case]."
Legal experts said Judge Scheindlin's removal was unusual and that such moves happen only several times a year. Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, said the court was likely swayed by the high-profile nature of the case and its potential to affect public safety, coupled with the judge's public interviews and the appearance she gave that she was openly encouraging lawyers to challenge the city in court.
While New York uses stop-and-frisk much more widely than most other cities, other police departments had begun to emulate the NYPD. Experts said the ruling would lead police in those cities to tread more carefully in their own tactics.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has credited the program with helping drive crime in New York City to record lows. But Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio repeatedly attacked the Bloomberg administration for using stop-and-frisk too often against minorities in high-crime neighborhoods, and said he would reduce its use.
Many have credited his outspoken stance against the policy with helping him win the Democratic primary election. He faces Republican Joe Lhota on Tuesday in the city's general election. In a statement, Mr. de Blasio said he was disappointed by Thursday's order. "We have to end the overuse of stop and frisk—and any delay only means a continued and unnecessary rift between our police and the people they protect," he said.
City officials praised it. "We could not be more pleased with the Court's findings," New York City Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo said in a news release. "In short, the ruling of unconstitutional practices is no longer operative, and that question will now receive a fresh and independent look both by the appeals court and then, if necessary, by a different trial court judge."
Lawyers representing the lead plaintiff in the stop-and-frisk case said they were disappointed by the order and were reviewing legal options to challenge the appellate court's decision to remove Judge Scheindlin. "It's remarkable the lengths the appellate court has gone to take this case away from the judge who's worked hard on it for the past 14 years," said Darius Charney, a senior staff attorney at the Center on Constitutional Rights.
The appeals court didn't weigh in on the substantive arguments in the city's appeal in Thursday's order but said it would hear the merits of the case in March.
Thanks to Christopher Matthews.
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