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New York judge hears opening arguments in "stop and frisk" challenge

By Bernard Vaughan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York City Police Department's "stop and frisk" crime-fighting tactics were a "frightening and degrading experience" for four black men who are suing the city, their lawyers argued on Monday, saying the practice was a racist violation of their constitutional rights.

The stops "are not just a minor inconvenience," Darius Charney, an attorney for the plaintiffs suing the city in a class-action lawsuit, said at the start of the federal trial in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

The four men who filed the lawsuit in 2008 include David Floyd, a medical student who was living in the Bronx and was stopped twice. They claim police improperly targeted them because of their race. The suit also calls the tactic a violation of the right against unreasonable searches.

While there have been several other lawsuits, the class-action suit is considered the broadest legal challenge yet to the tactic in which New York City police stop people they suspect of unlawful activity and frisk those they suspect are carrying weapons.

Advocates of stop and frisk, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, say the police practices have helped to reduce crime.

The plaintiffs are seeking changes to the NYPD's supervision of the activity and asking for the court to appoint a monitor to oversee the city's compliance with any relief that the court orders, among other remedies.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin is presiding over the trial, without a jury.

In a January decision related to a separate lawsuit, Scheindlin ordered the NYPD to immediately halt trespass stops outside certain residential buildings in the Bronx. However, she soon lifted her order at the request of the NYPD, which argued it would impose significant burdens on police.

Almost 90 percent of stop-and-frisk stops from 2004 through the first half of 2012 did not result in an arrest or summons, and only 0.15 percent of the stops produced guns, a main objective of the program, said Charney.

Officers are pressured by department-sanctioned quotas to conduct the stops, Charney said. The problems with the tactics, Charney said, "starts at the top and ends with the stop."

Heidi Grossman, an attorney representing the city, told the judge that the police department concentrates its resources on neighborhoods that experience the most crime. She also said that blacks and Latinos are both the overwhelming victims and perpetrators of crime in the city.

"Simply put, crime drives where police officers go, not race," Grossman said.

Grossman pushed back against the idea of an outside monitor, and said that "there is no evidence whatsoever" that officers operate under a quota system.

She also said some plaintiffs had changed the dates and times of alleged interactions with police officers.

"The evidence of the witnesses does not support" that the plaintiffs were stopped "for any reasons other than reasonable suspicion," Grossman said.

On the witness stand Monday, Floyd, the medical student, said that he was stopped and frisked twice, once in 2007 and once in 2008. The second time was in front of the Bronx house he was living in, as he was helping a fellow tenant unlock a door.

"I felt like I was being told I should not leave my home," said Floyd, who is black. "First and foremost, I didn't do anything; I am not a criminal."

On cross-examination, Morgan Kunz, an attorney for the city, sought to portray Floyd, 33, as an activist who changed his testimony regarding dates, times and other details of the 2007 interaction with police.

Floyd testified Monday that he couldn't remember exactly what day in April 2007 the first incident happened. Kunz noted that the badge numbers of officers Floyd said he dealt with in one of the interactions belonged to other officers.

"That's the information the officers gave me," said Floyd, who said he graduated from Syracuse University before pursuing a medical degree in Havana, Cuba.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, David Gregorio and Scott Malone)

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