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Federal judge: Can't use stop-frisk case to attack NYPD social distancing enforcement

Chief of Department of the New York City

Chief of Department of the New York City Police, Terence Monahan, takes a knee with activists as protesters paused while walking in New York, Monday, June 1, 2020. Demonstrators took to the streets of New York to protest the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

A Manhattan federal judge has shot down a request by civil liberties attorneys to use a landmark stop-and-frisk case to attack the way the NYPD enforced social distancing rules during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an 11-page ruling dated July 8, Judge Analisa Torres agreed with a special court monitor that the 2013 ruling in the stop-and-frisk case couldn’t be used to resolve complaints about racial disparities in the NYPD effort to enforce social distancing rules earlier this year.

The 2013 ruling in Floyd v. City of New York called stop and frisk “indirect racial profiling” because it targeted racially defined groups. After the pandemic erupted in the city, lawyers for the Center for Constitutional Rights and other organizations tried to bootstrap on the 2013 decision by arguing that similar racial disparities existed in the way police enforced social distancing rules. Claims were also made of excessive police force.

The various plaintiffs wanted to enjoin the NYPD and even requested wide ranging discovery, including police body camera videos.

But Torres sided with monitor Peter Zimroth and said, although some of the allegations about police conduct were similar to the Floyd case, much of it was outside the practices covered in that earlier litigation. Torres declined to use the 2013 ruling to deal with the new allegations, adding that any injunction against police “would halt even lawful enforcement.”

Torres noted that if anyone believed they were injured by racial bias when police made arrests under COVID-19 enforcement they had the right to pursue individual lawsuits.

Darius Charney, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, expressed disappointment in Torres’s decision.

“As the overwhelming protest of the past weeks have shown, the public fully understands the NYPD impunity — and the corresponding abuse of Black and Latinx people — must end and we will continue to fight alongside these communities that seek to end over policing and racist policing in New York City,” Charney said in a statement.

In a statement, spokesman Nicholas Paolucci, of the New York City Law Department, said the city would continue to work with Zimroth and the court to implement the 2013 ruling.

“As the court observed, claims relating to social distancing enforcement fall outside the scope of the Stop & Frisk litigation,” Paolucci said.

 City and NYPD lawyers in court filings disputed claims that police racially profiled in social distancing enforcement. In May, the NYPD said that many of the so-called social distancing arrests actually involved cases where there was a crime victim requiring police help. The crimes were characterized as COVID-19 related due to the circumstances of occurrence, remarks made the arrested individual or statements made by a victim, the NYPD said. In one case a bank robber passed a note to teller saying he had COVID-19, police said. 

 An NYPD breakdown of the COVID-related arrests showed that out of 125 cases, 64.4% involved Black defendants and 24% Hispanics, a total of nearly 90%.

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