A federal judge opened the door Wednesday for more people to join a lawsuit against the NYPD over its stop-and-frisk policies, finding "overwhelming evidence" that the program has led to thousands of unlawful stops.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan granted class-action status to a 2008 lawsuit filed by four people who alleged they were illegally stopped as part of a centralized police department practice targeting minorities.

Scheindlin greatly widened the potential pool of plaintiffs who could seek changes in the NYPD program -- and an injunction if it's found to be unconstitutional at trial.

The plaintiffs allege that police data show the vast majority of civilians stopped and frisked on the streets of New York City have been black and Hispanic.

In her 57-page decision, Scheindlin didn't rule on the merits of the lawsuit, but indicated that there is evidence that thousands of suspicionless stops have occurred.

"In at least 6 percent of all documented stops, police officer's stated reasons for conducting the stop were facially insufficient to establish reasonable suspicion," she wrote, citing a study done by an expert for the plaintiffs.

The NYPD and Mayor Michael Bloomberg insist that the program, which has grown from about 96,000 stops in 2002 to more than 685,000 last year, has helped drive down crime, particularly homicides.

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"It's taken more than 6,000 guns off the streets in the last eight years, and this year we are on pace to have the lowest number of murders in recorded history," Bloomberg said Wednesday. "We're not going to do anything that undermines that trend and threatens public safety."

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly declined to comment.

Darius Charney, who argued the case on behalf of the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights, said the ruling "reinforces that this is a citywide program the NYPD needs to address."

The decision opens up the case to people who allege they were unlawfully subjected to stop-and-frisk searches since 2005. It also fuels an already divisive issue in the 2013 mayoral campaign.

Two Democratic contenders, city council president Christine Quinn and public advocate Bill diBlasio, have already spoken out against the police program.

With AP