A black teenager told a judge in New York that he was confused, frightened and angry when two plain-clothes police stopped him in 2010 near his home in Manhattan, then questioned and frisked him.
Devin Almonor, 16, testified today that he had only a few dollars and a cell phone in his pockets when he was stopped in March 2010 after walking a friend to a bus stop, then handcuffed and arrested. Almonor, whose father is a retired New York police officer, was freed several hours later without being charged.
“I told them that I was just a couple of blocks from home,” Almonor told U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin today. Almonor is the first of 12 people who are scheduled to testify they were targeted by police because of their race.
The trial challenges the legality of the New York Police Department’s stop and frisk practices, which the plaintiffs allege are unconstitutional. Earlier today, Scheindlin, who will decide the case without a jury, heard opening statements. As the two sides outlined their cases, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., the civil rights leader, watched from the back of the packed courtroom.
The city rejects claims that its policies are illegal.
“The evidence will show that the NYPD is fully committed to policing the city within the bounds of the law,” Heidi Grossman, a lawyer for the city, said in her opening statement.
The lawsuit was filed in 2008 by four black men who said they were stopped and questioned or frisked by New York police without reasonable suspicion. They represent a citywide class of New Yorkers who claim they were illegally stopped since January 2005. New York police made more than 500,000 such stops in 2012.
David Floyd, Lalit Clarkson, Deon Dennis and David Ourlicht, who represent the citywide class, claim the New York City Police Department has a widespread, illegal practice of stopping people in the street that disproportionately targets black and Latino residents. They claim the department fails to train officers in proper procedures and imposes quotas that encourage illegal stops.
They are seeking an order from Scheindlin barring the practice and ordering changes to the department’s training and policies. They’re also asking that Scheindlin appoint a monitor to ensure the department complies with any orders she makes.
The police department has “laid siege to black and Latino neighborhoods in the last eight years,” said Darius Charney, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, the organization that filed the suit. He told the judge that being stopped and frisked isn’t a mere inconvenience but “a frightening and degrading experience and a serious deprivation of liberty.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police officers must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before stopping and frisking people in the street. Of those stopped in New York, 80 percent were black or Latino, the plaintiffs claim.
Grossman told Scheindlin that 83 percent of crime suspects and 90 percent of violent-crime suspects are black or Hispanic. Most crime victims are members of racial minorities, she said. Grossman denied that the police disproportionately target blacks and Latinos.
“Crime drives where police officers go, not race,” she said.
During a break in the hearing, Jackson criticized the city’s opening statement.
“Rather than offering an explanation, they’re offering rationalizations and justifications,” Jackson said. He said race-based stops by police are only part of a larger problem that includes racially biased lending and foreclosure practices.
Almonor and his family separately sued New York in 2011, claiming police illegally arrested him, then assaulted and arrested his mother and father when they tried to take him home. The family settled last year for $320,000, according to court records.
Floyd also testified today, telling Scheindlin that he was stopped by police in the Bronx in 2008 while he was helping an acquaintance get into his apartment with a spare set of keys. Floyd claims police searched him and asked him questions without any reasonable suspicion he had committed a crime.
In a ruling last year that Floyd and the other men may represent a citywide class of people illegally stopped by police, Scheindlin criticized the department’s “cavalier” attitude toward a “widespread practice of suspicionless stops,” saying it shows a “deeply troubling apathy towards New Yorkers’ most fundamental constitutional rights.”
On their list of more than 100 witnesses, the Floyd plaintiffs included dozens of current and former police officers and people who allegedly observed illegal stops.
Much of the case against the NYPD stop-and-frisk policies will focus on Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of law and public health at Columbia University, who will discuss his statistical analysis of police stop-and-frisk data for 2003 through the first half of 2012.
The plaintiffs said they will also present experts on police practices and remedial measures to curb illegal stops. The plaintiffs estimate they will need as many as 30 trial days to present their evidence.
Brenda Cook, a lawyer for the city, spent almost half an hour of the opening statement criticizing Fagan’s work, which she called “flawed and unreliable.”
The city said it has a political scientist, Dennis Smith, and a finance professor, Robert Purtell, to counter Fagan. The city said it may take an additional five days to mount its defense.
The Floyd case is one of three federal court challenges to the department’s “stop and frisk” practices. In Ligon v. City of New York, Scheindlin in January ordered that police cease making suspicionless “trespass” stops outside privately owned buildings in the borough of the Bronx.
She suspended that order while the city appeals. Davis v. City of New York, also in Scheindlin’s court, challenges police stops in public housing.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police must have “reasonable suspicion” of crime to justify such stops. New York state appeals courts last year threw out at least two convictions of teenagers who were found with guns in stop-and- frisk searches.
The New York Civil Liberties Union said in a statement last week that police made 97,296 street stops in 2002, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first year in office.
The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
The number of stops grew to 685,724 in 2011, the group said. The police made 533,042 stops last year, according to the NYCLU. Of the stops last year, 89 percent resulted in no arrest or ticket, the group said.
The case is Floyd v. City of New York, 08-cv-01034, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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