Judge Finds NYPD Routinely Makes Unconstitutional Street Stops Outside Clean Halls Buildings Across the Bronx

January 8, 2013 —  The NYPD has a pattern and practice of illegally stopping innocent people in public areas outside thousands of private apartment buildings in the Bronx and must immediately end this unconstitutional practice, a U.S. District Court judge ruled this morning.

The victory comes as part of a federal class-action lawsuit filed in March by the New York Civil Liberties Union, The Bronx Defenders, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the law firm of Shearman & Sterling LLP challenging the NYPD’s enforcement of Operation Clean Halls – a citywide program within the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk regime that allows police officers to patrol in and around certain private apartment buildings.

Judge Shira A. Scheindlin also found that for years the NYPD has known or should have known that its officers routinely violate constitutional rights through the Clean Halls program. Nonetheless the Department fails to adequately train officers about when they may legally make trespass stops, and that this practice “has risen to the level of deliberate indifference.”

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“Today’s decision is a major step toward dismantling the NYPD’s out of control stop-and-frisk regime,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Operation Clean Halls has placed New Yorkers, mostly black and Latino, under siege in their own homes in thousands of apartment buildings. This aggressive assault on people’s constitutional rights must be stopped.”

The preliminary injunction decision comes in the case of Ligon v. City of New York, which was filed on behalf of residents of buildings enrolled in Operation Clean Halls and individuals who were unlawfully stopped and arrested on trespassing charges through the program. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on behalf of residents of buildings enrolled in Operation Clean Halls and individuals who were unlawfully stopped and arrested on trespassing charges through the program. The City of New York, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and individual police officers who were involved in unlawful arrests are listed as defendants.

“With today’s ruling, the federal court has stated loudly and clearly that a major part of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program is unconstitutional and that the time has come for the courts to order a halt to illegal stops,” said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn. “If New York City has any sense, it will use this ruling as an opportunity to start a wholesale reform of stop and frisk.”

In today’s ruling, Judge Scheindlin ordered that the Department immediately cease its practice of unlawful trespass stops outside Clean Halls buildings. In addition, she outlined a number of training and supervision remedies that she will consider requiring the Department to undertake after an additional hearing that will take place in March.

“Today, the Court recognized that thousands of Bronx residents are under siege in their homes – not by crime, but by a Police Department that is out of control,” said McGregor Smyth of The Bronx Defenders. “The NYPD now must end this illegal and abusive dragnet once and for all.”

Operation Clean Halls has existed in some form since 1991 with the purported purpose of combating illegal activity in apartment buildings, particularly in high-crime areas. In some Bronx neighborhoods, nearly every private apartment building is enrolled in the program, with 3,261 buildings enrolled in the program borough-wide. As of July, 8,032 apartment buildings were enrolled in the Clean Halls program citywide. In a subset of Clean Halls buildings, police officers conduct regular floor-by-floor sweeps, called vertical patrols, and engage in particularly aggressive stop, question, frisk and arrest practices.

Judge Scheindlin squarely rejected the city’s claim that steps it had taken in 2012 had ended its practice of unlawful stops outside of Clean Halls buildings. In fact she found that the Department’s training was making the problem worse.

“The evidence of numerous unlawful stops at the hearing strengthens the conclusion that the NYPD’s inaccurate training has taught officers the following lesson: stop and question first, develop reasonable suspicion later,” she wrote in her decision.

“The Latino and African-American communities have something to cheer about today as Judge Shira Scheindlin recognized what our communities have long known: The NYPD routinely stops people of color without any reasonable basis, as we have demonstrated they do in front of Clean Halls buildings,” said Juan Cartagena, president of LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “We now begin the process of ending these unlawful practices so that all New Yorkers, regardless of their color, may feel free to walk the streets of their city without the constant fear of being stopped without cause.”

Members of the legal team include Dunn, Alexis Karteron, Taylor Pendergrass and Daniel Mullkoff for the NYCLU; J. McGregor Smyth, Jr., Mariana Kovel and Sarah Lustbader for The Bronx Defenders; Foster Maer and Roberto Concepcion, Jr. for LatinoJustice PRLDEF; and John Nathanson, Tiana Peterson, Mayer Grashin, Pedro Echeverria, Nicholas de Clerq and Molly Webster for Shearman & Sterling LLP.