Essential Pittsburgh
3:28 pm
Tue August 13, 2013

The Future of Law Enforcement and Sentencing

Two major decisions on Monday may have a big impact on law enforcement.
Two major decisions on Monday may have a big impact on law enforcement.
Credit Victor Caselle/Flickr

Opponents of the New York City Police Department’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy have long accused the program of having a racial bias. On Monday, their accusations were validated, as U.S. Judge District Shira Scheindlin ruled that the city’s implementation of such searches violated both the 4th and 14th Amendments of the US Constitution.

According to University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, this ruling does not mean that there will be an end to the city’s stop-and-frisk policy. Instead, the policy must be altered so that it can fall in line with pre-existing standards for civilian searches.

“The Supreme court has blessed [such policies], but there are standards that must be met,” Harris says.

The judge arrived at her decision by reviewing testimony from African American and Latino men who had been stopped and frisked. She also looked at the testimony of high ranking officers and a large amount of data collected from the police department’s UF-250 forms, which are filled out each time one of these searches is conducted. The forms require detailed information on the person being searched, including information on race. Though the forms originated in New York, their use is spreading to cities throughout the country. Currently, Pittsburgh does not utilize UF-250 forms when performing stops and searches of individuals suspected of criminal activity.

Harris is skeptical of any credit that has been given to the policy for the reduction of crime in New York City. “There is no evidence that could make that point,” says Harris, pointing out that even as New York has begun to curtail stop-and-frisk activity, crime has continued to fall.

Eric Holder seeks to side-step mandatory minimum sentencing

Judge Scheindlin’s ruling was not the only major decision to be made on law-enforcement policy Monday. US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice would begin sidestepping federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws in certain instances. In cases where a drug offender has no affiliations with a criminal organization such as a gang or cartel, the Department of Justice will avoid listing the quantity of drugs distributed, thus avoiding mandatory minimum sentencing. Harris says this decision will fundamentally alter nearly 30 years of drug enforcement policy by the federal government.