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Judge to NYPD: Stop Arresting People for Trespassing in Their Own Homes

A federal judge has dealt a blow to the department's controversial stop-and-frisk program.
 
 
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Almost one year after NYPD officers viciously beat 19-year-old Jateik Reed during a stop-and-frisk in the Bronx, a ruling by federal judge Shira Scheindlin today dealt a significant blow to the controversial stop-and-frisk policing tactic.

Citing evidence of misuse, Schiendlin essentially ordered police to follow the law when prosecuting trespassing charges. Her ruling targeted Operation Clean Halls, a program that allows landlords to grant police access to privately-owned buildings, and has led to  police-harassment of residents in their own homes. As AlterNet reported last year, Bronx residents, particularly those in their early-to-mid teens, complain that bogus trespassing charges are among the most common examples of how suspicionless stops turn into police misconduct, including potential abuse, and legal injustice.

Echoing that sentiment, Judge Scheindlin ordered the NYPD to "immediately cease" stopping Bronx residents under Operation Clean Halls unless they actually have "reasonable suspicion of trespass." Her ruling comes less than four months after the Bronx District Attorney's office announced it would no longer prosecute trespassing charges without interviewing the arresting officers to determine if the arrest was warranted. 

“Operation Clean Halls has placed hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, mostly black and Latino, under siege in their own homes,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in March. “For residents of Clean Halls buildings, taking the garbage out or checking the mail can result in being thrown against the wall and humiliated by police. Untold numbers of people have been wrongly arrested for trespassing because they had the audacity to leave their apartments without IDs or visit friends and family who live in Clean Halls buildings. This aggressive assault on people’s constitutional rights must be stopped.”

In a a 157-page decision, Judge Scheindlin said she was "not ordering the abolition or even a reduction" of Clean Halls, but that her ruling "is directed squarely at a category of stops lacking reasonable suspicion." 

"In order for an officer to have 'reasonable suspicion' that an individual is engaged in criminal trespass, the officer must be able to articulate facts providing 'a minimal level of objective justification for making the stop,' which means 'something more than an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch,'" the judge wrote.

"In particular, an individual observed exiting or entering and exiting a (Clean Halls) building does not establish reasonable suspicion of trespass, even if the building is located in a high crime area, and regardless of the time of day,” she wrote.

Nearly 90% of the 70,000 New Yorkers  stopped annually are black or Latino, and the policing tactic supposed to find guns is only successful two percent of the time. Last summer, 20,000 New Yorkers took the streets to protest the tactic in a silent march led by Reverand Al Sharpton.

Nonetheless, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, under whose tenure stop-and-frisk has risen 600%, has aggressively defended the tactic and NYPD. Still, others, like the mother of Ramarley Graham, an unarmed 18-year-old police gunned down in his Bronx home this February, say stop-and-frisk creates an abusive mentality among police, straining relations with the community. Constance Malcolm, Graham's mother, once told AlterNet she believed her son would be alive today, if it were not stop-and-frisk. 

Kristen Gwynne is an associate editor and drug policy reporter at AlterNet.  Follow her on Twitter: @KristenGwynne