The Norman Transcript

Columns

August 20, 2013

Frisking the Constitution

NORMAN — If you’re standing in front of a jewelry store window with a hammer in your hand, a police officer legally can walk up to you, detain you briefly and pat you down for weapons — even if you’re waiting for a bus to take you to your job as a carpenter.

Under the guidance provided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1968 case Ohio v. Terry, that hammer, and its proximity to a jewelry store window, offers the cop “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts,” create a reasonable suspicion that a crime might be about to take place.

Now, what if you’re standing in front of the jewelry store with your hands in your pockets? Can a cop legally stop and frisk you? In most places, the answer is no.

But in 2004, cops in New York City began operating under somewhat looser restrictions. It could mean making broadly defined “furtive” moves, like crossing a street to avoid a cop or shaking nervously. It sometimes meant having a suspicious bulge in your jacket, even if it was just a sack lunch.

On 4.4 million occasions between 2004 and 2012, New York City cops employed aggressive “stop and frisk” techniques, targeting blacks and Hispanics far more frequently than their numbers in the general population would suggest. You’ve heard of driving while black? In New York, you could get stopped for breathing while black.

Not any more. At least not automatically.

In a decision that has ramifications for policing across the country, U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled Monday that the city had acted with “deliberate indifference” to the civil rights of millions of New York citizens. Some of the stops may have been legal “Terry stops” (named after the 1968 Supreme Court decision). Many more were unconstitutional, the judge wrote.

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