Some thoughts on the recent decision on the NYPD stop and frisk policy: My constitutional law is a little rusty, but I did retain a few things from my second year Con Law class at Columbia. In order for a cop to stop, detain, search, and/or arrest someone, they have to have “probable cause.” This means they have to have a reasonable belief that the person has committed a crime.
Now, in the vast majority of the NYPD stops, there is no probable cause. The most common reason given for a stop is a “furtive movement.” This is way too vague to establish probable cause. So, how could anyone think the stops could be constitutional?
Well, the Supreme Court has established an exception to the general rule. Police are allowed to pat someone down for a weapon if they have reason to believe the person may be armed. The purpose of this rule is to protect the safety of the police and others. The purpose is not to find contraband or evidence of illegal activity.
It seems in the NYPD case, the exception may have swallowed up the rule. It stretches belief that in all of the tens of thousands of stops done by the NYPD, they suspected someone had a weapon. Especially when weapons were found in less than ten percent of stops. It is clear that the stops are employed to discourage criminals from carrying guns. And an argument can be made that they have contributed to making New York’s crime rate the lowest in its history. However, the legal question isn’t whether it’s effective, but whether it is constitutional. I think the judge probably got it right.