A Reasonable Court

By A. G. Moore 5/21/2013

The Scales of Justice
From Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain

When a judge speaks with wisdom and clarity, as Judge Shira Scheindlin did on Monday in Manhattan Federal Court, then the words can stand by themselves.

The case under Judge Scheindlin’s purview challenges the NYPD’s stop and frisk program.  The plaintiffs argued they’d been stopped and frisked by police because of racial profiling. Lawyers for the City of New York defended the police  and argued that racial profiling  played no role in the police stops.

Judge Scheindlin offered an assessment of  the city’s position as lawyers for both sides summed up their arguments. Judge Scheindlin said, in reaction to the city’s summation: “You reasonably suspect something and you’re wrong 90% of the time.” Judge Scheindlin chose her words carefully; ‘reasonableness’ is at the crux of this case. It is this standard which must prevail in a police stop in order for that stop to be constitutionally valid.

The judge offered another succinct appraisal of the city’s case: “A lot of people are being frisked or searched on suspicion of having a gun and nobody has a gun.”

At the start of this trial, statistics on stop and frisk seemed to work against the city’s lawyers; according to the NYPD’s own figures, about 85% of people stopped were Black or Hispanic. The city explained that this is actually reasonable, because a high percentage of crimes are committed by Blacks and Hispanics. Judge Scheindlin pondered this explanation and described it as “worrisome”. If an officer, she wondered, holds this view, is it not true that the officer might conclude that race “gives me further reasonable suspicion.”

A review of reports on this trial, including testimony by NYPD administrators, reveals that race is an element in stop and frisk. The city doesn’t agree that this can be interpreted as racial profiling. We’ll see what Judge Scheindlin has to say about that.

I am no soothsayer, but from the judge’s statements on Monday it seems that reasonableness will be the standard by which she assesses the NYPD’s stop and frisk program. And it seems that reasonableness will also be the spirit which will inform the judge’s deliberations as she decides the merits of this case