NEW YORK — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the New York Police Department’s practice of stopping people suspected of trespassing outside private buildings in the Bronx was unconstitutional.
The decision appears to be one of the more significant federal rulings during the Bloomberg administration on the Police Department’s use of stop-and-frisk tactics, which the administration has credited with helping lower crime rates in the city.
The case was narrowly focused on police stops in front of the private residential buildings enrolled in the Trespass Affidavit Program in the Bronx. Under that program, which includes several thousand residential buildings, property managers have asked the police to seek out trespassers and arrest them on sight.
But Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of U.S. District Court in Manhattan ruled Tuesday that the Police Department was routinely stopping people outside such buildings without reasonable suspicion that they were trespassing.
“While it may be difficult to say where, precisely, to draw the line between constitutional and unconstitutional police encounters, such a line exists, and the NYPD has systematically crossed it when making trespass stops outside TAP buildings in the Bronx,” Scheindlin ruled.
“For those of us who do not fear being stopped as we approach or leave our own homes or those of our friends and families, it is difficult to believe that residents of one of our boroughs live under such a threat. In light of the evidence presented at the hearing, however, I am compelled to conclude that this is the case.”
The lawsuit, Ligon v. the City of New York, is one of three related cases involving stop-and-frisk practices before Scheindlin. The broadest reaching case accuses the police of stopping and frisking hundreds of thousands of people a year solely on the basis of race; Scheindlin granted that lawsuit class-action status in May. The third case challenges police stops at public housing projects.
In the decision released Tuesday, the judge ordered the police “to cease performing trespass stops” outside the private buildings in the program unless officers have reasonable suspicion, a legal standard that requires police officers to be acting on more than just a hunch.
The fact that a person was merely seen entering or leaving a building was not enough to permit the police to stop someone, “even if the building is located in a high-crime area, and regardless of the time of day,” the judge ruled. Nor was it enough for an officer to conduct a stop simply because the officer had observed the person move furtively, Scheindlin said. (The forms that the police fill out after each street stop offer “furtive” movements as a basis for the stop).
The court decision also orders the Police Department to create a formal written policy “specifying the limited circumstances in which it is legally permissible to stop a person outside a TAP building on a suspicion of trespass,” and to revise the training of officers and to alter some of the training literature and videos used to teach officers how to conduct lawful stops.