With yet another presidential election just around the corner, we’re being bombarded with the campaign promises from both candidates and put in a position to pick between them. While presidents are not known for delving into aspects of the criminal law and how police should be enforcing the law, this election has been an exception, with Donald Trump speaking at length about New York’s “stop and frisk” policy.
However, there are three things that Trump gets wrong, when it comes to this policy. The first thing he gets wrong is that it’s constitutional. The second is that it hasn’t already been struck down by the courts. The third is that it works. Here’s why Trump is wrong – or at least misleading – when he says that New York’s stop and frisk policy abides by the constitution.
Stop and frisk is the practice of police officers approaching someone on the street that they have a reasonable suspicion of, asking that person some questions, and conducting a quick “pat down” to look for weapons or contraband. Stop and frisk, as a concept, has been deemed constitutional since the Supreme Court of the United States said so in Terry v. Ohio, which is why this practice is also called a “Terry stop.”
Even though the concept of doing a Terry stop is constitutional, that doesn’t mean that police departments have free reign to do it any way they want.
When the police department in New York City adopted the stop and frisk as a formal policy in the early 2000s, the way the department’s officers carried it out was much different. They performed Terry stops far, far too often, and would often do one even though they did not have a reasonable suspicion that the suspect was up to no good. Instead, they would stop someone and frisk them largely based on the person’s skin color.
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the stop and frisk policy resulted in exponentially more stops every year, culminating in 2011 when no fewer than 685,724 people were stopped. Out of these people, well over half blacks, despite the fact that under a quarter of New York’s population was African-American.
When police focus so exclusively on members of one ethnicity in their investigations, it violates several aspects of the Constitution, but especially the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This clause guarantees that American citizens will always be treated equally in the eyes of the law.
Whoever gets elected to be the next President of the United States, the winner will have a significant say in how the laws of the country get enforced. If Trump does get elected, he’ll face obstacles if he wants to nationalize New York City’s stop and frisk policy and will incite countless lawsuits, but while those are all getting sorted out, our Constitutional liberties will suffer.
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