Stop and Frisk and Racial Profiling

The killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman exposed a raw nerve left after years of continued prejudice, racial profiling and inequality in criminal justice system.  Racial bias has no place in the courtroom, but, through unchecked police tactics like stop and frisk, it still manages to permeate throughout our system of justice.

They are called “investigatory stops” in courtrooms but are known in the law enforcement community as “stop and frisk” because most of these stops involve pedestrians rather vehicles. This crime prevention tool gained constitutional legitimacy in 1968 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Terry v. Ohio. The Court essentially held that the police may conduct a brief investigatory stop based on less suspicion than is necessary to secure a warrant. They must have what is called “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a person is involved in criminal activity. This suspicion must have a “particularized and objective” basis. In other words, gut hunches or general suspicions are not enough. Courts, however, must pay deference to an officer’s “observations and conclusions” which, based on his/her experience, creates a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict, a social debate has emerged that “stop and frisk” has been used to racially profile young black males as likely criminal suspects. President Obama contributed to this debate when he said he had been the subject of racial profiling in various social situations. Last year the Rev. Al Sharpton in a Huffington Post blog called “stop and frisk” the “new racial profiling. The ACLU in New York City pointed out recently that since 2002 there have four million New Yorkers stopped and frisked, nine out of ten of whom were completely innocent. Law enforcement officials credit these investigatory stops for a 29 percent drop in violent crime in the city between 2001 and 2010. But that belies the reality. Other large cities, like Los Angeles (59%), Dallas (49%), New Orleans (56%) and Baltimore (37%), experienced much greater decreases in violent crime without relying upon stop and frisk.

The essential legal question, then, is precisely what constitutes “reasonable suspicion.” Most courts have reached the same conclusion on the issue. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution permits a warrantless detention of a person, short of a full-blown custodial arrest, if the detention is justified by reasonable suspicion. ‘[A] law enforcement officer’s reasonable suspicion is justified that a person may be involved in criminal activity permits the officer to stop the person for a brief time and take additional steps to investigate further.’ Reasonable suspicion to detain a person exists if an officer has specific, articulable fact that, combined with rational inferences from those facts, would lead him to reasonably conclude that the person detained is, has been, or soon will be engaged in criminal activity. These facts must show unusual activity, some evidence that connects the detainee to the unusual activity, and some indication that the unusual activity is related to crime. ‘Although an officer’s reliance on a mere ‘hunch’ is insufficient to justify an investigatory stop … the likelihood of criminal activity need not rise to the level of probable cause.’ The test for reasonable suspicion is an objective one that focuses solely on whether an objective basis exists for the detention and disregards the officer’s subjective intent. A reasonable suspicion determination requires looking at the totality of the circumstances and reasonable suspicion may exist even if those circumstances standing alone may be just as consistent with innocent activity as with criminal activity.”

It is not unreasonable to believe that Chicago may be the next big city to use such a law enforcement tactic in order to suppress crime no matter how attenuated the results.  The law firm of Goldman & Associates represents individuals charged with serious criminal charges in state and federal courts in Chicago, and throughout Illinois.  We believe racial profiling has no place in modern place law enforcement and we work everyday to ensure this insidious prejudice based “tool” plays no role in any case in which we are connected.

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