Terron Belle was walking home from an upper Manhattan subway station one evening, three years ago, when an unmarked police car pulled up behind him. Four officers in plainclothes surrounded him on the sidewalk, ordering him to turn around against a gate so they could search him. Belle complied, and the officers found nothing on him, but they then demanded his ID, telling him that they were looking for guns and doing a “warrant check.”
“I didn’t have any warrants,” Belle told The Intercept. “I was a bit confused, like, why were they searching me for a warrant?”
Still, he complied. “I wasn’t going to argue,” he said, fearing that if he had, the encounter would have quickly turned dangerous for him. “It could have gone different, it was night time, there was nobody around us.”
When they found no warrant for Belle officers returned his ID and let him go without so much as an apology.
Police did the same to Edison Quito, a few blocks away. He was standing in front of his building, waiting for his wife, when a group of officers walked into the building. Two different officers approached him to ask him what he was doing. “I’m standing in front of my building, nothing else,” he said he told them. The officers demanded Quito’s ID. “And I’m like, what’s the reason for you asking for my ID, I’m not doing anything wrong,” he said he replied. One of the officers warned him that if he didn’t comply, he would be arrested, so Quito pulled out his New York State learner permit, which confirmed he lived in the building in front of which he was standing. Officers ran the ID but found no warrants. They handed it back and drove away.
“They always go around stopping random people, but around that area they mostly always go target Spanish people,” Quito told The Intercept. “Whenever they see a Hispanic, they’ll go ahead and stop him.”
Plainclothes officers also jumped out of an unmarked car to surround Richmond Appiah, in the South Bronx, while he was walking to a corner store. They pushed his hands against their car and searched his pockets. As he grew agitated, Appiah said police told him that if he knew he hadn’t committed any crimes, there would be no reason for him to panic. “I’m panicking because of what you guys are doing to me right now,” he said he responded. “You guys just automatically rushed out as if I was a suspect or a drug dealer. … You guys are holding me hostage as if I just hit somebody or did something wrong.”
When the officers demanded his ID, Appiah asked them why. They told him to obey their orders, he said, and if he didn’t like them, to file a complaint.
The same scene, plainclothes officers rushing out of unmarked cars to stop mostly Black and Latino New Yorkers and demand their IDs, has played out thousands of times, according to a federal class-action lawsuit currently before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In each case documented in the lawsuit, officers stopped and searched people in mostly poor communities, then, even after finding no unlawful items on them, they demanded to see identification. Officers sometimes told the suspects that they were looking for guns — and ran their IDs to search for arrest warrants or possibly matches in other law enforcement databases, including ones tracking alleged gang affiliation or connections to open cases. But police ran those checks without any basis or reasonable suspicion, making the temporary detentions and digital searches unconstitutional, the lawsuit claims. “By exploiting surveillance technology, the NYPD has replaced traditional — and largely discredited — police practices such as stop-and-frisk with invasive digital searches that rely on surveillance systems,” the complaint says. “The NYPD’s policy and practice of detaining people without individualized lawful justification in order to search NYPD databases violates the United States Constitution and is the latest tactic in a long history of unwarranted search and seizure practices.”
“They have nothing besides the fact that these are young men in certain neighborhoods,” said Cyrus Joubin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, arguing that the practice violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches, and the 14th, which prohibits racial discrimination. “They have at most a baseless hunch and they’re just going on a fishing expedition.”
The practice appears to be sanctioned by the NYPD itself, the lawsuit notes, with officers sometimes telling the individuals they stopped that they were just “following procedure.” The lawsuit accuses department officials of failing to properly train and supervise officers on the legality of these searches.
“We have reason to believe that it’s just common practice for them to run warrant checks on the vast majority of people whom they stop,” said Molly Griffard, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project who is also representing plaintiffs in the case. “The NYPD’s own data confirms that the vast majority of people who they stop each year are Black and Latinx. So, when they run warrant checks and record searches on the majority of people who they stop, it is a continuation of their racist stop-and-frisk practices, but with an invasive digital component.”
The NYPD declined to comment.
The stops and physical searches described in the lawsuit are reminiscent of the widespread stop-and-frisk practice of the Bloomberg era in New York City, at the height of which, in 2011, officers stopped and searched more than 685,000 people: almost all Black and Latino men. A federal judge ruled the practice unconstitutional in 2012 — a landmark victory for civil rights that led to a series of police reforms in the city, including the appointment of an independent monitor and the use of body cameras. But despite both Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio claiming credit for ending stop-and-frisk, the practice has continued. In particular, while stops are down overall, racial disparities remain rampant: During de Blasio’s first term in office, Black and Latino New Yorkers accounted for more than 90 percent of reported stops in at least 30 precincts, and for a majority of stops even in mostly white neighborhoods. In 2019, the number of reported stops was up by more than 20 percent over the previous year. And the number of stops, critics warn, is underreported.
But while stop-and-frisk is nothing new, the lawsuit argues that not only are police still stopping and searching New Yorkers with no basis, but that they are doing so in order to run searches on their IDs that do not meet legal standards. Attorneys believe officers are motivated at least in part by arrest quotas the NYPD has consistently denied are in place despite significant evidence to the contrary.
Warrants for an arrest can be issued whenever someone fails to show up in court — often over low-level summonses for things like littering or carrying an open container. That kind of low-level, “broken windows” policing has left New Yorkers with hundreds of thousands of outstanding warrants — up to 1.6 million in 2018 — despite city efforts to clear the backlog.
“It has created this incentive structure, where police feel that if they just detain and do warrant checks on random people on the street, they feel that because of these huge numbers of outstanding warrants there’s a good chance they might just through luck capture somebody who has an outstanding warrant,” said Joubin, noting that even if police did get a hit, the search itself, when conducted with no reasonable suspicion, would remain unconstitutional.
The widespread practice of stopping people in order to check their IDs against digital databases reveals police’s growing reliance on data-driven, so-called predictive technology over the last several years. “Agency practice has adapted to allow officers to conduct comprehensive searches of City databases from remote locations, including patrol cars,” the lawsuit alleges. But these “digital frisks,” as attorneys have dubbed them, raise questions about the accuracy and due process by which officers feed a number of law enforcement databases that remain shrouded in secrecy, despite repeated calls for transparency.
Officers demanding the IDs of the individuals they stopped usually told them they were looking for warrants, before taking the IDs with them back to their cars, effectively detaining people for as long as 10 minutes at a time. Officers likely ran the IDs against the Domain Awareness System, or DAS, a searchable citywide database police can access from their smartphones, which contains details of at least two million warrants, 11 million arrest records, and 100 million summonses. Or they could be calling the department’s Administrative Impact Office or Central Dispatch to run names against the “NYPD Z FINEST” system, which also includes warrant and summons records. But attorneys believe officers are not just checking for warrants but also for investigation cards, or “I-cards,” which are records of individuals who may be subjects or even simply witnesses in an investigation. And they believe officers may be checking IDs against a sprawling and controversial database which includes the names of tens of thousands of New Yorkers whom police claim are associated with gangs, usually on the basis of broad and arbitrary criteria and in the absence of criminality.
Whatever officers may be looking for, checking the IDs of individuals who are not committing crimes or are not reasonably believed to be connected to criminal activity is unconstitutional, the attorneys maintain. And yet the practice has continued, even after the NYPD announced on the heels of the George Floyd protests this summer that it was disbanding its notorious plainclothes “anti-crime” unit.
“It’s really these plainclothes officers who feel empowered to do this,” said Joubin. “Somehow they feel like they can get away with it. And they often have.”
Much like more severe incidents of officer brutality, daily harassment and humiliation of the sort doled out by officers against the plaintiffs in the lawsuit has long shaped tensions between Black and Latino New Yorkers and the police, tensions that once again blew up this past summer following the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis.
The plaintiffs said that they were breaking no laws when police stopped them. They knew that officers had no reason to search them, but they did not want to put themselves at risk by arguing. “I just go to work, I come home, that’s it,” Belle told The Intercept. When officers mentioned they were looking for guns, he added, “That’s all I needed to hear. I just complied after that.”
Plaintiffs said these encounters with police left them scared and humiliated, even though they led to no arrests or further police action. And they feared they could have turned violent.
Appiah, the plaintiff from the South Bronx, was confused when an unmarked car abruptly braked as he walked across a public housing project, and as a group of officers surrounded him. He was scared, but he knew he had done nothing wrong and felt that he had to defend himself. “As the young black man that I am, what options do I really have besides to speak up?” he told The Intercept. “And that’s all I was doing basically, speaking up, saying, What are you doing?”
The encounter was turning tense when a bystander pulled out his phone to record it. The officers had violated Appiah’s rights, the man said. “They are not supposed to do that to you,” he told him. The man, who spoke to The Intercept but asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, tried to record the incident but ended up taking a photo instead, which he later shared with Appiah. “They are not supposed to stop you for no reason,” added the man, who had once worked with the Bronx Defenders on a campaign to pass the Right To Know Act, which requires officers to identify themselves and explain the reason for a stop. “And they are supposed to give you their information.”
The man, in his 40s, added that he had also been stopped “countless times” and felt the need to intervene. “I know what it looks like, they’ve been doing that my whole life,” he said. “If I wasn’t there, they would have harassed him even longer than they did.”
Appiah, who lost many friends to gun violence, said police “have never done anything but made me scared for my life.”
“They have labeled all the young men in this community as either violent or in some type of gang,” said Appiah. “So if you’re outside minding your business, there’s a high chance that the police will pull you over. It’s sad.”