Appeals court lets NYPD's stop-and-frisk go unmonitored for now

Decision blocks earlier ruling that sought to appoint a federal monitor to oversee New York City police

A demonstration against stop-and-frisk in March.
Allison Joyce/Getty Images

The U.S. Court of Appeals has allowed New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk program to continue unmonitored while the city appeals a lower court’s ruling that found the program unconstitutional.

The Second Circuit Court’s ruling, delivered on Thursday, also mandated that Judge Shira Scheindlin be removed from the case because she “ran afoul” of conduct codes by compromising the perception of her unbiasedness by appearing in media reports, and by abusing a rule that allows judges to take on new cases if they have ruled on similar ones in the past.

The decision is a big win for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, which has argued that the practice of stopping and searching people on the streets without a warrant makes the city safer and does not violate the rights of those stopped, most of whom are young black or Hispanic men.

Judge Scheindlin, who accused the New York Police Department of racial profiling, had found that stop-and-frisk violated the Fourth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

She ordered a slew of reforms, including appointing an independent federal monitor to oversee changes to the program, as well as mandating a series of community meetings in New York that would determine how to further change it.

The Second Circuit Court’s ruling means those changes will be put on hold, and the city will be able to continue the practice until a decision is made in its appeal case. Oral arguments in that case start on March 14 of next year.

The ruling immediately drew passionate reactions from both sides of the debate.

"We could not be more pleased with the Court's findings," Michael A. Cardozo, a lawyer representing the city in the case, said in a written notice. "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."

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which represented the plaintiffs in the cases before the appeals court on Thursday, expressed disappointment.

“The process of reforming stop-and-frisk is now on hold until we get a new administration in City Hall,” Donna Lieberman, NYCLU director, told Al Jazeera. “But we’re also confident that we will win ultimately. Staying the decision is both extraordinary and in the end doesn’t mean anything.”

Lieberman and others said the decision to remove Scheindlin from the case was particularly surprising.

An appeals court finding that a judge is not fit to oversee a case is a fairly rare occurrence, according to Ruthann Robson, who teaches at the City University of New York School of Law and blogs about stop-and-frisk.

“That part really seems unusual,” she said. “It seems awfully premature. There was no real reason to remove her.”

The appeals court did not challenge any merits of the original case, but said that Scheindlin had compromised her ability to fairly oversee it by speaking with media outlets, such as The New Yorker and The Associated Press.

The appeals court ruling also said that Scheindlin’s 2008 decision to direct stop-and-frisk cases toward her office was “improper.”

The court ruling mandates that no further action be taken on the case by a district judge until the Court of Appeals has had time to further review it.

But regardless of Thursday’s ruling, stop-and-frisk in its current form may still be on shaky ground.

The appeals court’s ruling does not affect the New York City Council’s passage of two bills that would curb the use of stop-and-frisk and appoint an independent monitor for the practice.

The Bloomberg administration sued the council to reverse those two bills, but a decision has yet to be made in that case.

And the front-runner in New York City’s mayoral race, Democrat Bill de Blasio, has said he would make reforming stop-and-frisk a top priority.

De Blasio said he was "disappointed" with Thursday's ruling. 

"We shouldn't have to wait for reforms that both keep our communities safe and obey the Constitution. We have to end the overuse of stop and fisk, and any delay only means a continued and unnecessary rift between our police and the people they protect," he said in a statement to the press. 

De Blasio's Republican challenger, Joe Lhota, called the ruling "a critical first step toward uncuffing the NYPD."

"The only thing more dangerous than Judge Scheindlin’s behavior is Bill de Blasio’s naive public safety approach."

New York's mayoral vote is Tuesday, Nov. 5.

Al Jazeera

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