In one of the most significant courtroom tests of a key Bloomberg administration policy, a federal judge will begin hearing testimony on Monday in a trial to determine whether the New York Police Department has been unconstitutionally stopping black and Hispanic males in the street over the last decade.
The outcome of the trial in Federal District Court in Manhattan will help define the terms under which the department patrols large swaths of the city long after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg leaves office, with the potential to affect the tenor of relations between the police and minority neighborhoods for years to come.
The political and symbolic stakes are high, too. The trial comes after years of a vigorous public debate over the Police Department’s growing reliance on stop-and-frisk tactics, which Mr. Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly have steadfastly defended as effective tools in reducing gun violence. They claim that the procedures have saved thousands of lives among young black and Hispanic males.
Expected to last well into May, the trial will feature testimony from current and former police officials, as well as secret station house audio recordings, which the lawyers bringing the suit say were recorded by police whistle-blowers to demonstrate the pressure that officers are under to make stops.
Although the courtroom will hear from 11 black or biracial men and a Hispanic woman about their experiences of being stopped repeatedly by the police, the class-action lawsuit — Floyd v. City of New York — claims to represent “hundreds of thousands if not millions of people” who experienced “suspicionless and race-based stops” by the city’s police officers.
The lead plaintiff, David Floyd, a medical student in the Bronx, was stopped twice, according to the suit. The first time was in April 2007, as he walked on the sidewalk; the following year, he said, he was stopped while standing outside his home, helping a neighbor try to get back inside an apartment after becoming locked out. (Mr. Floyd had retrieved a number of keys from his godmother, who owned the house, and was trying them one by one.) The police approached Mr. Floyd and the neighbor and detained them on suspicion of burglary, ordering Mr. Floyd against a wall and searching his pockets.
The trial’s outcome will be decided by a federal judge, Shira A. Scheindlin, who is currently hearing two related stop-and-frisk lawsuits. One of the suits already resulted in a lengthy hearing held late last year, which included testimony by both police officials and Bronx residents who had been stopped.
But that suit deals with only a small number of stops at private residential buildings in the Bronx, whose landlords had authorized the police to patrol there. In that case, Judge Scheindlin has issued a preliminary ruling that many of the stops at issue were unconstitutional, a ruling that would seem troublesome for the city in the Floyd case.
The third lawsuit, still a long way from trial, concerns stops in public housing projects.
But the Floyd suit, which was filed in 2008, challenges the largest number of stops — several million in recent years — and embodies the stop-and-frisk debate most closely. The trial centers on whether street stops in the city have soared because, as the plaintiffs claim, the Police Department has increasingly ignored constitutional limits on its authority to detain people when they investigate behavior that they deem suspicious.
For decades, the Supreme Court has recognized police authority to detain someone while determining whether the person has committed a crime or is about to do so. But the legal precedent for such stops requires the police to have reasonable suspicion, a standard less stringent than the probable cause required for arrest. Nonetheless, the police cannot stop someone on the basis of a vague hunch.
Every day, judges across the country apply that standard in criminal cases, as they weigh the facts that led the police to approach a person they later arrested. The Floyd case asks Judge Scheindlin to consider not just one stop, but rather the Police Department’s overall practice.
Of the five million stops in New York that the police have recorded since 2004, some 88 percent of those encounters ended with the person’s walking away without a summons or an arrest. One of the core questions in the trial is whether that low rate of finding evidence of criminality suggests, as the plaintiffs claim, that many of the stops were baseless.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs hope to convince Judge Scheindlin that officers are under pressure to make stops as part of a quota system, and that police supervisors use subtle hints and coded language to encourage officers to stop young minority men. In response to the accusations, the Police Department has denied using a quota system and points to its written policy forbidding racial profiling.
“Minorities are overwhelmingly the victims of violent crime in New York City, and the neighborhoods in which they live demand and deserve the Police Department’s attention,” the city’s executive assistant corporation counsel, Celeste Koeleveld, said in a statement about the coming trial. “Precinct by precinct, the rates at which minorities are stopped are consistent with the rates at which minorities are identified as crime suspects.”
The suit alleges that the stops violate the 4th Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure, as well as the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
The lawsuit, brought by lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and elsewhere, asks Judge Scheindlin to create “a process for obtaining community input” to change the stop-and-frisk practices and to appoint a monitor to ensure that the department’s policies comply with the Constitution.