A healthy criminal justice system — one that is simultaneously effective and fair — demands neither too much discretion nor too little. Monday’s welcome news about stop-and-frisk searches and mandatory minimum drug sentences illuminates both aspects of that moral imperative.
On the unbridled-discretion end of the spectrum, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that New York City’s aggressive stop-and-frisk program violated the constitutional prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure as well as its guarantee of equal protection.
To read Scheindlin’s opinion is to feel sympathy both for the innocent targets of the unconstitutional stops and the police instructed to carry them out.
The targets are the easy part. To take just one example: Devin Almonor, a Manhattan high school student, was stopped when he was walking down a Harlem street at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, pushed onto the hood of a police car, handcuffed and taken to the precinct.
“What are you doing?” Almonor asked the officers as he was being frisked. “I’m going home. I’m a kid.”
But sympathy for the cops, who in Scheindlin’s recounting are often overeager to make stops and abusive in conducting them?
Yes, because they are both pressured from above to make stops, lots of them, and burdened with too much discretion in deciding whom to stop. Scheindlin’s opinion documents how the relentless drive for numbers trickled down from commander to rank-and-file.
When officers bothered to fill out forms justifying stops, they checked off boxes with loose justifications such as “furtive movements” or “suspicious bulge/object.” People were questioned simply because of the suspicious fact of meeting a generalized description — young black male, 18 to 24 — in a high-crime area, with scant review of whether such stops were constitutional.
Such a combination is problematic standing alone. Fold in race — blacks and Hispanics account for about half the city’s population but 83 percent of those searched — and it becomes a toxic recipe for community resentment.