After a federal judge ordered the New York City Police Department to stop violating the rights of innocent people, all NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg could do was whine about the potential dangers of respecting the rights of the innocent.
For more than a decade, New York City police have randomly stopped pedestrians and questioned them, then frisked them for weapons. Bloomberg defends the program as saving lives, but he doesn’t understand that we have constitutional rights that protect us against unreasonable searches. He doesn’t get to decide when to ignore our rights.
Since 2004, NYC police have made 4.4 million stops and frisked 2.3 million people. Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin noted in her ruling that no weapons were found in 98.5 percent of the frisks. That means that nearly all of those 2.3 million people searched for weapons were innocent — and the searches took place without cause and without any guilt on their part.
Under the NYC program, there didn’t have to be any reason to suspect anyone. Police were encouraged to search more and more people — and the real-world results have been that the vast majority of those searched have been young black and Hispanic men. The judge called it a form of racial profiling.
Unfortunately, the judge didn’t order a stop to searching people without cause, because there’s Supreme Court precedent for allowing that. Yes, the justices of the highest court can’t read the text of the Constitution and see that we’re entitled to be free from such searches if we’re not under reasonable suspicion. Here’s what the text of the Fourth Amendment says:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
I’m opposed to racial profiling, but I’m just as opposed to unreasonable searches of any person, regardless of race or religion or sex or home planet. We have the right — which the U.S. government acknowledges in the Constitution — to be left alone unless there’s a reasonable suspicion that we’ve done something wrong.
This is another case in which lawyers, politicians and bureaucrats have found ways to explain away the intent of text in the Constitution. Is it any wonder that some of us consider it a dead document? Government pays lip service to it, but then finds any excuses it wants to ignore the intent of the words.
Bloomberg is furious because he alleged that some criminals are caught this way. By his logic, we should allow police to conduct warrantless house-to-house searches for illegal weapons and fugitives. (Hey, they got away with it in Boston recently and few people seemed to object.) There’s no doubt that they’d find some illegal things in those draconian searches, so we can assume that a few crimes might be stopped. But we don’t allow that because none of us want police entering our homes without reason and without warrants to root around looking for wrongdoing.
So why have we put up with it when it comes to NYC’s program? I think it’s simply that it’s been poor blacks and Hispanics who have been targeted. If people who look like me were being targeted, we would fight back in court and in the media. The innocent black and Hispanic victims of this program haven’t had the standing to do that, because a lot of people are willing to assume they’re guilty of something. So people with power in society haven’t had a problem with it, for the most part.
If higher courts uphold the ban on the program, it’s a great step in the right direction. But a better outcome would be ending such searches entirely. They’re wrong and they should be legally banned.
We have the right to be left alone as long as we’re not doing anything criminal. The people who adopted the Bill of Rights specifically put that in there to make sure the right was acknowledged. It’s time that many government employees — from police departments to intelligence agencies — took that right seriously.