NYC Pays Substantial Damages in Subway Checkpoint Racial Profiling Case, but Refuses to Change Program

July 1, 2009 —  In a settlement approved by a federal judge, New York City will pay $25,000 to settle a lawsuit the New York Civil Liberties Union filed on behalf of a Brooklyn man who has been the repeated victim of racial profiling at NYPD subway bag search checkpoints. The city, however, rejected an offer to forego all monetary relief in exchange for the NYPD making changes to the search program.

J. Sultan, a 32-year-old native New Yorker of Kashmiri descent, has been stopped and had his bag searched by police officers 21 times since the NYPD initiated the subway checkpoint program in 2005. In February, the NYCLU sued the city and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly in federal court asserting that the persistent targeting by police officers violated Sultan’s rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments.

In a settlement approved by a federal judge, New York City will pay $25,000 to settle a lawsuit the New York Civil Liberties Union filed on behalf of a Brooklyn man who has been the repeated victim of racial profiling at NYPD subway bag search checkpoints. The city, however, rejected an offer to forego all monetary relief in exchange for the NYPD making changes to the search program.

J. Sultan, a 32-year-old native New Yorker of Kashmiri descent, has been stopped and had his bag searched by police officers 21 times since the NYPD initiated the subway checkpoint program in 2005. In February, the NYCLU sued the city and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly in federal court asserting that the persistent targeting by police officers violated Sultan’s rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments.

“The city should be working to prevent racial profiling, not paying damage settlements,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “Mr. Sultan twice offered to forego all damages if the NYPD would agree to monitor and supervise subway checkpoints to ensure racial profiling does not occur. Unfortunately, the city rejected these offers.”

As part of the subway program, the NYPD places checkpoints at any given time in a tiny percent of the approximately 1,000 subway entrances throughout the city. Officers manning checkpoints ostensibly select passengers for bag searches on a numerical basis. The officers decide at the start of a checkpoint what fraction of passengers to search, for example every 25th person. The likelihood that Sultan would be stopped 21 times from July 2005 to June 2008 on the basis of this numerical system is about 1 in 165 million. Sultan’s South Asian appearance is the only factor that can explain this persistent targeting by police officers.

The NYPD explicitly forbids checkpoint officers from recording any demographic information about the people they select for searches. The NYCLU charged in its lawsuit, however, that this policy prohibits the NYPD from detecting or correcting racial profiling by officers.

“The NYPD’s refusal to modify its subway search program to minimize the risk of racial profiling is deeply troubling,” said Christopher Dunn, NYCLU associate legal director and lead counsel on this case. “We will continue to monitor the program and encourage the NYPD to establish clear policies and procedures to ensure that race plays no role in people being stopped at subway checkpoints.”