Court Shuts Down NYPD's Argument That When Searching For Black Male Suspects, Any Black Male Will Do
from the stop-and-friskiness-costs-NYPD-a-conviction dept
Racial profiling certainly appears to be a problem for some law enforcement agencies. It’s not often you hear the government arguing that it should be allowed to profile citizens racially, but that’s exactly what it did. Unsurprisingly, the government body arguing for the right to search any black male simply because a black male is being sought is the NYPD — an argument which highlights the sort of behavior its “stop and frisk” program encouraged.
A couple of years ago, the NYPD was searching for a robbery suspect with the following description:
On the morning of April 2, 2013, New York City Police Officers Christopher Vaccaro and Damon Valentino were ordered to locate and arrest Chauncey Butler, a third-degree robbery suspect. The officers were provided with a photograph of Butler from a previous arrest and an investigation card, or “I-Card,” that contained “pedigree information.” Based on these records, the officers had at their disposal Butler’s race, black; height, 5’10” to 6’0” tall; hair color, black; weight, 155 to 180 pounds; age, 19; and home address, on Valentine Avenue in the Bronx.
In addition, one of officers had direct knowledge of Butler’s physical features, having arrested him previously on drug charges. Despite this info, the officers looking for Butler decided — after a fruitless ninety-minute search — that another black male could be made to fit the description.
[A]t about 5:00 in the afternoon, when it was still light out — [the officers[ came across Watson and stopped to observe him. Watson is black, 6’2” tall, and was 180 pounds and 25 years old at the time.
Watson was in the vicinity of the description, but didn’t necessarily fit it. But when Watson’s later actions proved he wasn’t the sought suspect, the officers tried to pin their illegal search on something else.
The officers testified that when they first caught sight of Watson, they “believed” he was Butler. At that time, moreover, he was with two other individuals and appeared to be engaged in a drug sale. After seeing a hand signal that they recognized as indicative of a drug transaction, the officers exited the car. Officer Vaccaro then immediately drew his gun and, approaching the three men from behind, “announced himself as a police officer.”
Watson was then searched for weapons and contraband by the officers, who found 27 baggies of crack in his pockets. That was the officers‘ take on the events leading up to the search. Watson, however, argued that he was not engaged in a drug deal (although he was carrying a weapon). He was instead walking with a friend when he was ordered to turn around by the NYPD officers. One of the officers asked Watson if he was Butler, which he (obviously) denied. He then handed his ID card to the officers. The officers then asked if he was carrying any contraband, which he (obviously, but for different reasons) denied. The officers performed the search anyway, despite lacking the reasonable suspicion to do so and being well-aware they weren’t dealing with the robbery suspect they were looking for.
This search was the officers’ undoing.
In an oral ruling delivered from the bench, the district court found that the search was unconstitutional for two reasons. The first — which we conclude we need not address on this appeal — is that the officers would have lacked authority to frisk Butler had they actually encountered him because he was only charged with third-degree robbery, which, unlike first- or second-degree robbery, does not involve use of a firearm or deadly weapon. This, combined with the fact that “[t]he government offered no evidence that Butler had ever committed a crime using a weapon,” led the district court to conclude that Officer Vaccaro had no reasonable basis to believe that Butler, had he actually been present, might have been armed and dangerous.
Second, and of relevance here, the district court determined that, even assuming arguendo that the officers would have had authority to search Butler if they had encountered him, the search of Watson was objectively unreasonable because the officers had no reasonable basis to believe he was Butler and did not in fact believe he was Butler. Furthermore, the officers had no alternative ground to search Watson, for, as the district court found, the officers did not observe any hand signals indicative of a drug transaction; no third person existed or escaped from the scene; and Watson’s coat was closed and the butt of his gun was concealed.
Judge Scheindlin — who has never been one to oblige the NYPD’s excesses — made it clear in her ruling that the officers had no reason to search Watson, no matter which line of logic it pursued.
Vaccaro testified that he saw Watson clearly and still believed that Watson was Butler. Although Vaccaro previously arrested Butler and spent time with him, he admitted that he was not sure whether or not Watson was Butler until after he ran Watson’s fingerprints because “on a yearly basis [he] arrests or comes into contact with over a hundred individuals.” I do not find this testimony credible. Butler and Watson do not look [a]like. This is evident from a comparison of the photographs of Butler and Watson, as well as my observation of Watson at the hearing.
In addition to their different facial features, skin tone, height, and weight, Watson is over five years older than Butler. Vaccaro’s generic description of the similarities between Watson and Butler undermines the contention that he reasonably believed them to be the same person.
The government argues that it would have been illogical for the officers to ask for identification prior to searching Watson, but I reach the opposite conclusion: It would have been illogical and imprudent not to ask for identification. While Vaccaro’s belief that Watson was Butler might have been the basis for the stop, it was not the basis for the search.
The NYPD appealed this decision, using some truly regrettable arguments — ones that not only suggest racial profiling might be OK because people sometimes have certain features in common, but that its officers are sometimes so visually impaired they can’t tell the difference between the person depicted on a NYPD “ID card” and the person standing right in front of them, presenting identification that proves otherwise.
The Government argues, inter alia, that, to the extent that the district court’s finding that the two men do not look alike was based on its in-person observation of Watson, we should discredit it because the district court had an extended opportunity to view Watson in a well-lit courtroom, whereas Officer Vaccaro viewed him for only a minute. But the testimony in the record shows that it was light out at the time of the stop, and that, once he exited his car, Officer Vaccaro’s view was not impaired. A material difference in skin tone, facial features, and height is not something that takes a long time to process. Thus, we see no reason to conclude that the factual findings of the district court are clearly erroneous.
Quite obviously, this isn’t the outcome the NYPD’s lawyers were hoping for when it laid down its suspect arguments. But even if this wasn’t exactly what it meant, this was the only conclusion the court could reach. And it’s a severely ugly conclusion.
The rule that the government would have us adopt has the practical effect of permitting police officers to search any black male who is of roughly similar height, age, and skin tone to another black male charged with a crime. Such a rule is unreasonable on its face.
The officers had no reason to search Watson because he didn’t physically match the description and had provided ID stating the contrary. Ah, but some will say, what about the drug deal the officers observed? Well, that description of the events was considered so contradictory to other testimony that the lower court discredited it completely. And, while the officers first attempted to justify their search with the “we saw a drug deal” story (rather than basing it on the momentary “belief” that Watson was Butler), the government’s lawyers did not rely on this disputed narrative during the case’s trip to the Second Circuit Court.
So, for all intents and purposes, the only narrative that survives is Watson’s, and in his, he’s not dealing drugs nor displaying a weapon. Instead, he’s walking down the street being just black enough to “fit the description.” And, according to the government’s own arguments, that’s all it needs to justify a search.