The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated
-- Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Just in case you forgot.
There has been, after all, an appalling amount of forgetting where that amendment is concerned. And New York City has become the epicenter of the amnesia. Yes, the "stop and frisk" policy of questioning and searching people a cop finds suspicious is used elsewhere as well. But it is in the big, bruised apple that the issue now comes to a head.
Federal agents recently arrested a New York City cop on charges of violating the civil rights of an African-American man. Officer Michael Daragjati allegedly stopped the man in April and threw him against a parked van to search him. No drugs or weapons were found, but Daragjati reportedly became angry the man questioned his rough treatment and requested the officer's name and badge number. So Daragjati ran him in on a charge of resisting arrest. Later, talking on the phone to a friend, he bragged that he had "fried another n-----" and that it was "no big deal." This was overheard by the feds, who had him under surveillance in a separate investigation.
Let no one fix his or her mouth to pronounce themselves "surprised." Blacks and Hispanics have complained for years about the selective attention they get from police. Giving cops the power to randomly stop and search pedestrians they find suspicious could not help but exacerbate the problem.
Last year, about 600,000 people were stopped and frisked in New York. Though blacks and Hispanics account for just over half the city's population, they represent about 85 percent of those stopped. The Center for Constitutional Justice, a civil rights group, says drugs or weapons are turned up in less than 2 percent of those stops.
It bears repeating: less than 2 percent.
That failure rate suggests at minimum a need to change the standard by which police decide whom to stop. "Suspicion" obviously isn't cutting it.
Daragjati's alleged malfeasance also suggests a crying need for stricter oversight.
The argument in defense of stop and frisk can be boiled down to two words: It works. Marc Lavorgna, a spokesman for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, says crime has been driven to "historic lows" in part by this tactic.
The response to that argument also boils to two words: So what?
The crime rate has been falling for years all over the country, so it's hard to single out what effect this particular tactic in this particular town might have had. But assume it does work. Can that truly be our standard for deciding what is acceptable?
If it is, why not allow police to search private homes without warrants? Why not ban private ownership of firearms? These things, too, would work. More criminals would be arrested. Fewer people would die.
And all it would cost is a few constitutional rights.
Most of us are not black or Hispanic, most of us do not live in New York. But all of us have constitutional rights, so all of us have a stake in the drama playing out in our largest city.
The Fourth Amendment means what is happening there is wrong. Or it means nothing at all.