October 31, 2013

Court Blocks Stop-and-Frisk Changes for New York Police

By n

A federal appeals court on Thursday halted a sweeping set of changes to the New York Police Department’s practice of stopping and frisking people on the street, and, in strikingly personal terms, criticized the trial judge’s conduct and removed her from the case.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the judge, Shira A. Scheindlin, “ran afoul” of the judiciary’s code of conduct by compromising the “appearance of impartiality surrounding this litigation.” The panel criticized how she had steered the lawsuit to her courtroom when it was filed nearly six years ago.

The ruling effectively puts off a battery of changes that Judge Scheindlin, of Federal District Court in Manhattan, had ordered for the Police Department. It postpones the operations of the monitor who was asked to oversee reforms of the stop-and-frisk practices, which Judge Scheindlin had said violated the constitutional rights of minorities.

The appeals court’s action was an unexpected twist to what has been a long-running fight over the tactics, a centerpiece of the city’s crime-fighting strategy.

The use of police stops has been widely cited by the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as a crucial tool in helping drive the number of murders and major crimes in the city to historic lows. The police say the practice has saved the lives of thousands of young black and Hispanic men by removing guns from the streets and suppressing violence.

But Judge Scheindlin ruled in August that the Police Department not only had violated the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, but had also violated the 14th Amendment by resorting to a “policy of indirect racial profiling” as the number of stops soared in minority communities over the last decade.

The police, Judge Scheindlin found, were routinely stopping “blacks and Hispanics who would not have been stopped if they were white.”

Lawyers for the city had gone to the Second Circuit to ask for a stay of Judge Scheindlin’s ruling and of the court-ordered mandates. In granting the stay, the circuit went beyond what the city had requested and unexpectedly ordered that the stop-and-frisk lawsuit, known as the Floyd case, be randomly reassigned.

The new judge, John Koeltl, was instructed to put off “all proceedings and otherwise await further action” from the panel. The appeals court has not yet taken up whether Judge Scheindlin’s decision reached the correct constitutional conclusion regarding the police tactics.

“We intimate no view on the substance or merits of the pending appeals,” the two-page order stated.

The panel set a schedule for the appeals process that extends into 2014, after Mr. Bloomberg leaves office. The judicial stay leaves open the question as to how the next mayor will approach the appeal, and whether he will accept or challenge the court-ordered mandates.

Bill de Blasio, the Democratic nominee for mayor, whom recent polls have shown to be far ahead of his Republican opponent, Joseph J. Lhota, said he was “extremely disappointed” by the decision.

“We have to end the overuse of stop-and-frisk, and any delay only means a continued and unnecessary rift between our police and the people they protect,” Mr. de Blasio said in a statement.

Mr. Lhota applauded the ruling. “As I have said all along, Judge Scheindlin’s biased conduct corrupted the case,” he said in a statement, adding that the next mayor “absolutely must continue this appeal.”

Lawyers involved in the lawsuit said they would appeal the panel’s decision, which put off a number of changes Judge Scheindlin had ordered. Those included installing an outside lawyer to monitor the Police Department’s compliance with the Constitution and directing some officers to wear cameras in a pilot program to record their street interactions, and holding community meetings to solicit public comments on reforming the department’s tactics.

One civil rights lawyer who brought the stop-and-frisk case, Jonathan C. Moore, said the Second Circuit’s criticism was misplaced, and expressed shock that the panel would remove Judge Scheindlin.

“I think it’s a travesty of justice for this panel of the Second Circuit to take this case away from a judge who worked very hard for the last five years to resolve very important, serious issues involving the civil rights of the residents of New York,” he said.

The city’s police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, characterized the ruling as “an important decision for all New Yorkers.”

“I have always been — and certainly I haven’t been alone — concerned about the partiality of Judge Scheindlin,” he said.

In its ruling, the panel of three judges — John M. Walker Jr, José A. Cabranes and Barrington D. Parker — criticized Judge Scheindlin for granting media interviews and for making public statements while the case was pending before her, including articles in The New Yorker and by The Associated Press. In criticizing the judge for bringing the stop-and-frisk case under her purview, the three-judge panel also cited an article by The New York Times in a footnote.

At issue is the related-case rule, which allows lawyers to steer similar lawsuits before the same judge. But the Second Circuit said Judge Scheindlin had improperly applied that rule, citing her comments in 2007 to civil-rights lawyers who sought to reopen a long-settled stop-and-frisk lawsuit. If “you got proof of inappropriate racial profiling in a good constitutional case, why don’t you bring a lawsuit?” she said, according to a transcript quoted in the order on Thursday. “You can certainly mark it as related.”

Not long after her remarks, the lawyers did in fact file the Floyd lawsuit.

Judge Scheindlin issued a statement late Thursday explaining her use of the related-case rule, suggesting that encouraging the plaintiffs to file a new action made procedural sense.

She added that in her interviews with the media, she had avoided talking about the Floyd case.

“Some of the reporters used quotes from written opinions in Floyd that gave the appearance that I had commented on the case,” the judge said. “However, a careful reading of each interview will reveal that no such comments were made.”

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