Stop and Frisk
The NYPD refers to its stop-and-frisk program as “stop, question and frisk” [SQF]. The stop-and-frisk practice of the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”) has been the subject of significant public debate and litigation. Much of the discourse has focused on the practice’s constitutionality and its impact on African-American, Latino, and other minority communities. A federal court decision, Floyd v. City of New York, declared stop and frisk unconstitutional as practiced in New York City.
Under stop and frisk, citizens are temporarily detained for purposes of questioning, and at times frisked or searched. Such a detention is a “seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 16 (1968). These stops require articulable and individualized suspicion that crime is “afoot,” meaning that crime is either imminent, has just occurred, or is in progress at the time of the detention. Section 140.50 of the New York Criminal Procedure Law authorizes a police officer “to stop a person in a public place … when he reasonably suspects that such person is committing, has committed or is about to commit either (a) a felony or (b) a misdemeanor.” Once that stop has been made, the Criminal Procedure Law authorizes a frisk of the person only if the officer “reasonably suspects that he is in danger of physical injury.”
Supporters and opponents of the practice agree that only 6% of all stops result in an arrest. Close to half of all SQF arrests did not result in a conviction; Fewer than one in four SQF arrests—or 1.5% of all stops—resulted in a jail or prison sentence; Just one in fifty SQF arrests—or about 0.1% of all stops—led to a conviction for a crime of violence; Just one in fifty SQF arrests—or about 0.1% of all stops—led to a conviction for possession of a weapon.
Whether for a crime or violation, most of these convictions were for relatively minor offenses. For example, more than 40% were for quality-of-life offenses, such as graffiti and disorderly conduct. The next three most frequent categories—drugs, trespass, and property crimes—combined to make up more than a third of all convictions. In contrast, possession of weapons, including common small knives, such as gravity knives,3 constituted just 2% of SQF arrests, or about 0.1% of stops. Similarly, crimes involving violence constituted 4.2% of all convictions, representing only 2% of all SQF arrests, or about 0.1% of all stops.
Unlike arrests, appearance tickets — more commonly referred to as “summonses” - result almost exclusively from non-criminal, minor penal law, health code, and administrative code violations like public consumption of alcohol, riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, disorderly conduct, and failure to comply with park signage—types of offenses the NYPD describes as “crucial” to quality-of-life policing. A summons does not require a defendant to be detained or fingerprinted, but instead specifies a date on which the defendant must appear in court. Because summonses do not result in detention, many defendants are unaware that a court will issue a warrant for a defendant’s arrest if he fails to appear.
The hit rate for summonses is similar to that of stops: in 2012, the NYPD recorded 532,911 stops, of which 5.1% resulted in a summons being issued; while in 2011, the NYPD recorded 685,724 stops, of which 5.9% resulted in issuance of a summons. The NYPD issued 2,111,967 summonses between 2009 and 2012.55 Of those summonses, 1,007,604 (47.7%) were dismissed because, among other reasons, they were legally insufficient or had serious defects. During the same period, only 457,396 summonses (21.7%) resulted in a plea or a finding of guilt at trial.
Even when controlling for crime rates and the demographics of high-crime neighborhoods where police are more heavily deployed, blacks and Hispanics are stopped at a disproportionate rate. If a defendant is unable to make bail, the pressure to take a plea and avoid jail while awaiting a suppression hearing and eventual trial is great. Even for those able to make bail or released on their own recognizance, the slow process of court appearances and adjournments as a case moves to trial can eventually wear defendants down.
Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly continued to stress the importance of stop-and-frisk tactics in the gradual decrease in crime in New York City. But New York was not the only large US city to experience a gradual decline in violence during this period. Of the twenty-five largest cities in the United States, twenty experienced a decrease in crime over the last several decades, many in a similar pattern to New York City, yet none did so by abusing stop-and- frisk tactics in the same way.
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