In a recent decision, a federal appeals panel upheld a judge’s ruling striking down New York’s Stop and Frisk law. Another appeals panel had previously blocked the ruling, claiming that the judge may not have been impartial, in part, because she had given interviews on the issues.
The Stop and Frisk has been challenged as a clear violation of the right of people to be free from arbitrary and unreasonable searches by police. Studies and statistics demonstrated that police were targeting minorities at shockingly high rates. In short, the law gave bad cops a license to harass people having to cover their tracks. It also caused good cops to rely on biases rather than probable cause in determining who to investigate.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld stop and frisk laws under Terry v. Ohio. If officers have reasonable suspicion that someone is involved in criminal conduct, they can stop them and pat them down (frisk) them for weapons if officers have reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and dangerous. If the officer says that he or she feels something that they immediately recognize as contraband (usually drugs), they can pull out the item and use it as evidence. This allows an officer who wants to break the rules to search a person and later claim that it was a “Terry Search.”
Courts have traditionally gone out of their way to find exceptions to principles that protect a citizen’s 4th Amendment rights. Defendants and their attorneys must face judges who often blindly believe police officers and must be convinced otherwise by additional evidence. In a climate in which our 4th Amendment freedoms appear to be slowly eroding, New York’s Stop and Frisk law stood out as one of the worst laws in the country. It now stands as a rare victory for personal freedom and the right to be free from police harassment.