July 4 (Bloomberg) -- A New York appeals court threw out a conviction for the second time in as many weeks of a teenager caught with a loaded gun in a so-called stop-and-frisk search by officers of the New York City Police Department.
The rulings come about a month after a Manhattan federal judge approved a class action over the practice. The teen, identified as Jaquan M., was 14 years old when the weapon was found in his backpack during a police search. He was stopped after officers patrolling a “drug-prone” location at night observed him putting an object into his backpack, according to the decision.
The appellate panel in Manhattan yesterday reversed a lower court ruling from August 2010. The judge in the trial court found the teen was a juvenile delinquent after he conceded that his action would constitute second-degree criminal possession of a weapon if committed by an adult.
The two decisions pose legal setbacks to the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk program, in which residents of high-crime neighborhoods are stopped, questioned and searched. Police must have what the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled is “reasonable suspicion” that crime is afoot to justify such stops under the U.S. Constitution.
“Reasonable suspicion could not be formed in this case based strictly on the officers’ observation of appellant removing an object from his waistband, because they conceded that the object bore no obvious hallmarks of a weapon,” the appeals panel said in a 3-2 decision written by Justice Angela M. Mazzarelli. “Further, there were no other objective indicia of criminality because there were plausible, non-criminal reasons for appellant’s behavior.”
Two judges on the appeals panel disagreed with today’s majority opinion, saying that the circumstances justified the questioning of the teen based on common law and also provided police with “reasonable suspicion to believe that the appellant was illegally carrying a gun in his backpack” and justified a stop-and-frisk.
“The appellant’s efforts to keep the object concealed, his surreptitious conduct looking up and down the street and his presence alone at night in a drug-prone location where armed robberies were increasing were all factors that aroused the officer’s reasonable suspicion,” Justice James M. Catterson wrote in the minority opinion, which was joined by Justice David Friedman.
The same court in another 3-2 decision issued a week earlier threw out a similar conviction against another teen found with a loaded gun during an encounter with police in the Bronx in 2010. The city has appealed that ruling to the state Court of Appeal in Albany.
“The dissenting judges properly applied the law to the facts,” Kate O’Brien Ahlers, a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department, said in a statement. “The majority opinion creates new obstacles for police officers who reasonably suspect that someone is carrying an illegal gun.”
The First Department reiterated that a police stop-and-frisk that isn’t based on a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed a crime can’t be condoned, Pat Bath, a spokeswoman for the Legal Aid Society, which argued the cases before the appeals court, said in a statement.
On May 16, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin certified a class action brought by four black men against the city over the practice. She rejected the city’s arguments against certification and criticized the police department’s attitude toward “widespread suspicionless stops” as “cavalier” and evincing a “deeply troubling apathy towards New Yorkers’ most fundamental constitutional rights.”
Scheindlin wrote that there is “overwhelming evidence that there in fact exists a centralized stop and frisk program that has led to thousands of unlawful stops.”
Last year, the New York Police Department stopped and interrogated people 685,724 times, an increase in street stops of more than 600 percent since Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first year in office, according to a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Nine out of 10 people stopped were innocent, meaning they were neither arrested nor ticketed. About 87 percent were black or Latino, according to the organization.
The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
The case is In re Jaquan M., No. 6432, New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division First Department (Manhattan). The federal court case is Floyd v. City of New York, 08-01034, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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