Young and Black in New York

Monday, December 19th, 2011

The legacy of Terry v. Ohio*:

One evening in August of 2006, I was celebrating my 18th birthday with my cousin and a friend. We were staying at my sister’s house on 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan and decided to walk to a nearby place and get some burgers. It was closed so we sat on benches in the median strip that runs down the middle of Broadway. We were talking, watching the night go by, enjoying the evening when suddenly, and out of nowhere, squad cars surrounded us. A policeman yelled from the window, “Get on the ground!”

I was stunned. And I was scared. Then I was on the ground — with a gun pointed at me. I couldn’t see what was happening but I could feel a policeman’s hand reach into my pocket and remove my wallet. Apparently he looked through and found the ID I kept there. “Happy Birthday,” he said sarcastically. The officers questioned my cousin and friend, asked what they were doing in town, and then said goodnight and left us on the sidewalk.

Less than two years later, in the spring of 2008, N.Y.P.D. officers stopped and frisked me, again. And for no apparent reason. This time I was leaving my grandmother’s home in Flatbush, Brooklyn; a squad car passed me as I walked down East 49th Street to the bus stop. The car backed up. Three officers jumped out. Not again. The officers ordered me to stand, hands against a garage door, fished my wallet out of my pocket and looked at my ID. Then they let me go.

I was stopped again in September of 2010. This time I was just walking home from the gym. It was the same routine: I was stopped, frisked, searched, ID’d and let go . . .

Last May, I was outside my apartment building on my way to the store when two police officers jumped out of an unmarked car and told me to stop and put my hands up against the wall. I complied. Without my permission, they removed my cellphone from my hand, and one of the officers reached into my pockets, and removed my wallet and keys. He looked through my wallet, then handcuffed me. The officers wanted to know if I had just come out of a particular building. No, I told them, I lived next door.

One of the officers asked which of the keys they had removed from my pocket opened my apartment door. Then he entered my building and tried to get into my apartment with my key. My 18-year-old sister was inside with two of our younger siblings; later she told me she had no idea why the police were trying to get into our apartment and was terrified. She tried to call me, but because they had confiscated my phone, I couldn’t answer.

Meanwhile, a white officer put me in the back of the police car. I was still handcuffed. The officer asked if I had any marijuana, and I said no. He removed and searched my shoes and patted down my socks. I asked why they were searching me, and he told me someone in my building complained that a person they believed fit my description had been ringing their bell.

And it’s all perfectly legal (provided the cops include boilerplate language about reasonable suspicion).  These stop-and-frisks happen about 50,000 times per year in New York. Someone at Twitter pointed out that if NYPD did stop-and-frisks on Wall Street around lunchtime, they’d probably find more drugs than they could process. That would also probably put an end to the practice in a matter of days.

*MORE: Via the comments, New York criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield writes:

Sorry to be a stickler about stuff like this, but the test in New York comes from People v. DeBour, 40 NY2d 210 (1976), which is more restrictive than Terry.

I appreciate the correction.


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24 Responses to “Young and Black in New York”

  1. #1 |  EdinMiami | 

    *Edit: Isn’t it 500,000 times?

  2. #2 |  Around the internets § Unqualified Offerings | 

    […] There’s nothing remarkable about his story.  It’s completely, utterly typical.  And, as Radley notes, it’s completely legal as long as they have some legal figleaf of reasonable suspicion.  […]

  3. #3 |  KrisV | 

    Wow! Ridiculous.

    @ Radley – I share your stories like this with my friends. They are usually okay with this kind of stuff happening! It freaks me out, drives me nuts. How do I explain to them that they lose their freedoms a little more everytime this happens? I guess they’ll have to have one of those moments where libertarianism “happens” to them. Ugh.

  4. #4 |  picachu | 

    Two white teenage boys were walking down the road by my house. It was raining. Not like really pouring down but just raining enough to leave an inch or so of water in the low spots you walked over. A cop car drove by and seeing the boys, stopped. The officer got out, and demanded they lie down face first on the wet road. He searched them and made them lie there for about 15 minutes while another cop car pulled up and the two cops talked. Then they handed the kids their ID’s back and drove off.

    I don’t know why they stopped them but didn’t the constitution used to say something about the government not being able to do stuff like that?

  5. #5 |  shg | 

    Sorry to be a stickler about stuff like this, but the test in New York comes from People v. DeBour, 40 NY2d 210 (1976), which is more restrictive than Terry.

  6. #6 |  Comrade Dread | 

    If this continues, things are going to get quite ugly in our future. People will only tolerate oppression for so long.

  7. #7 |  Kafka Surrenders | The Agitator | 

    […] of the post below, here’s a ruling from the D.C. Court of Appeals demonstrating just how powerless citizens are […]

  8. #8 |  Windypundit | 

    I’m a middle-aged white guy. I’ve been stopped walking on the street exactly twice in my life, and both times the officers were far more courteous than this. Only one of them even asked for ID. It makes me want to start an advocacy group: Middle-Aged Respectable Looking White Guys Against Terry Stops.

  9. #9 |  Kukulkan | 

    Based on the description of the stops, the author’s civil rights likely were violated. Under Terry v. Ohio the police are allowed to frisk the detainee for weapons, for the protection of the police. Under Terry v. Ohio, the police are not allowed to take out a wallet and search its contents. Nor are the police allowed to seize a cell phone, since it is not a weapon and is not even contraband. In Hiibel, the S. Ct. held that some stop and identify statutes are constitutional, and N.Y. has a stop and identify statute (CPL 140.50). Pursuant to N.Y.’s stop and identify statute, police may demand a detainee’s name and address. Accordingly, if the police demanded the name and address of the author of the quoted article, and he responded, then the police should not have searched his wallet or seized his cell phone.

    I am not a criminal attorney in NY, so defer to shg if there is case law on this issue.

  10. #10 |  EH | 

    If what allows this is more restrictive than Terry then we’re all screwed indeed. At least those of us in the US, but hey, NDAA will put these fears to rest.

  11. #11 |  Dana Gower | 

    Police seem to have a real problem with people who are walking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stopped, starting when I was young and continuing to not young. I’m white. If it weren’t for the repetitive nature of it, the questions would be funny. One of my favorites is, “Do you mind telling me what you’re doing?” I’ve tried every possible answer: Yes, walking down the street, enjoying the weather, nothing much. I’ve never found the “right” answer. If you ask why you’re being stopped, the answers are even funnier. I’ve been told they were looking for a black suspect. (I’m white.) I’ve been told they were looking for a suspect who was 6’5″. I am — not. I’ve been told that there ws a problem with robberies in the neighborhood and they were just keeping an eye out on strangers. (I lived several blocks away.) I’ve never had a gun pointed at me, handcuffed, told to lie down on the street or arrested, though, so I guess I’m still ahead.

  12. #12 |  Bob | 

    NYC has like… 35,000 cops in the NYPD alone. They’re the largest gang there is! What do you expect them to do, actually ‘investigate’ crimes and shit?

    Ha ha ha ha!

    Much easier to just drive around and harass people.

  13. #13 |  JSL | 

    “Someone at Twitter pointed out that if NYPD did stop-and-frisks on Wall Street around lunchtime, they’d probably find more drugs than they could process. That would also probably put an end to the practice in a matter of days.”

    Well of course, thats called professional courtesy to folks who might be able to fight back legally or professionally. The monied interests can bribe their way out. They’ll start hitting up the nose candy folks when it gets real bad and they need more cash for the state.

    This is all a result of the war on drugs, war on terror and most importantly, the war on poverty.

  14. #14 |  Robert | 

    Frankly, after the second go-round of this, I’d be looking to leave NY.

    Or, why don’t they try organizing a city wide strike or boycott? At least get some MSM attention on the practice.

  15. #15 |  eliot | 

    Appreciate the post, but please correct to note that stop-and-frisks happen about 500,000 times per year in NYC, not 50,000:

  16. #16 |  JOR | 

    #11, and people wonder why so many Americans are overweight. The cops won’t let anyone walk anywhere in peace (and don’t even get me started on what they do to people who run).

  17. #17 |  Robert | 

    @ #16 “(and don’t even get me started on what they do to people who run).”

    Ever see “Watermelon Man”? Where the white guy suddenly turns black, and his habit of racing the bus every morning suddenly gets him arrested the first time he tries it after the transformation has taken place?

  18. #18 |  All linky, no thinky « Blunt Object | 

    […] Young and black in New York (The Agitator) […]

  19. #19 |  Don Cordell | 

    In Los Angeles, CA from 1945 to 1949, I’m white (18) in 1945 and was not only stopped by 7 times taken in to custody, held for 3 days each time, on Suspicion, because I was walking after dark. Not nice, but surley creeps. I only wish I’d have had and carried a gun to insist on my Rights. The cops are not our friends, they are the enemy, and many people of all colors are actually victim of this crime against citizens of this nation. I am furious that this still happens and it’s going to get worse. Locked up forever with NO trials to clear the community of anyone who objects. We will just disappear, and our families will fear looking for us, as they may then also disappear. Just like in Germany in the 1930’s. I’ve never forgiven the police, and I cheer everytime I hear about a cop being killed, and I’m now 84. Will we ever have Justice in this nation, Click on my name and see my solution. Join with me to Restore not Change America, and to restore Justice. I’ll return our jobs as I shut down imports that Congress are suppose to control and don’t. I’ll protect our borders which Congress also doesn’t do. Let retake control of our nation, and put some of these creeps in jail where they will learn how to fear some of the big boys. Our police are now Military equipt, and we have pea shooters. Had enough and ready to fight back? Don Cordell for President.

  20. #20 |  John Bboanerges Redman | 

    I just printed and read People v DeBour. It gave a pass to the cops stopping DeBour. Only the dissenting opinion shows any sensitivity to “constitutional” rights. Sorry, Scott, this is a poor framework for freedom. La Pene, also, gives little comfort as it was so narrowly construed that the slightest little effort by the criminal cops would have sheathed them in judicial blessing. The lie they didn’t tell will never be neglected, therefore, in the future now they have been given another groundrule. “Oh, yes, I saw a bulge under his shirt” is now part of the testiliar’s script.

  21. #21 |  John Bboanerges Redman | 

    Sorry, I mis-typed my name above. It’s John Boanerges Redman.

  22. #22 |  John Boanerges Redman | 

    BTW, I’m in Superior Court in Manchester, NH tomorrow over a charge of not answering a cops question about name and address. I am asserting my 1st amendment right to freely speak OR TO NOT SPEAK AS I CHOOSE as one of my reasons that the court has no jurisdiction (over an unconstitutional “law”). I have also filed Roger Root’s ‘Cops are unconstitutional’ brief and several other items as affidavits.

  23. #23 |  criminallawyernewyork New Yo | 

    US with torture, property theft and ethicexpulsion (2007) forces to legalization of theUS highest academic degree, the PhD in Poland retarded with science and technology 50 years behind the United States; throws from house in Utah to Okecie airport without means of support with the highest US academic degree not valid in Soviet occupied Poland: h tt p://

  24. #24 |  San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee Knows A Useful Tragedy When He Sees One | The Agitator | 

    […] policy is a device calculated to give legal and political cover to arbitrary harassment of the sort of people they like to harass and in an attempted end run around Fourth Amendment principles like probable cause and reasonable […]