A judge's ruling Wednesday on a request to authorize a class action lawsuit over the New York Police Department's (NYPD) use of "stop-and-frisk" searches could see more than 1 million people line up to file claims against the department for violating their constitutional rights.

While it's not likely to attract that many plaintiffs, people who were illegally searched in New York City any time after January 5, 2005 are eligible to join the lawsuit.

Police data revealed in February that 684,330 people were detained by the NYPD and subjected to a stop-and-frisk in 2011 alone, representing a 600 percent increase since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002. That increase has fueled a surge in arrests, mostly in small drug possession charges where those accused were not displaying or using drugs in public view.

In her ruling (PDF), U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin noted that police carried out 2.8 million similar stops between 2004 and 2009. "Over fifty percent of those stops were of Black people and thirty percent were of Latinos, while only ten percent were of Whites," she wrote.

Similar statistics were recently brought to light by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which analyzed an even more recent release of NYPD data and found that young black males were the group most frequently targeted by police, accounting for 25.6 percent of men stopped and searched in 2011, despite making up just 1.9 percent of the overall male population.

Young Latino men also accounted for a disproportionate amount of law enforcement time, enduring a full 16 percent of NYPD stops in 2011 despite only accounting for 2.8 percent of the male population. Young white men, however, were much less likely to encounter police harassment in New York City, having made up just 3.8 percent of all stop-and-frisks in 2011, while accounting for 2 percent of the male population.

Despite the startling statistics, a recent Democratic-led initiative in Congress to forbid police from engaging in profiling at levels like these drew criticism earlier this week from Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who insisted "there is no profiling" or even "evidence" of profiling conducted by the NYPD.

"This case presents an issue of great public concern: the disproportionate number of Blacks and Latinos, as compared to Whites, who become entangled in the criminal justice system," the judge continued. "The specific claims raised in this case are narrower but they are raised in the context of the extensively documented racial disparities in the rates of stops, arrests, convictions, and sentences that continue through the present day."

She also noted that a prior class action lawsuit against the NYPD triggered a settlement in 2003 which forced police to enact policies designed to prevent racial profiling in stop-and-frisk searches. The judge's ruling Wednesday grants class action status to a claim filed in 2008, essentially as a follow-up to that earlier lawsuit, which allegess that police have continued needless stop-and-frisks in minority communities with blatant disregard for the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which bars searches without probable cause.

"The Court has rightly recognized that illegal stops-and-frisks are not limited to a few rogue police officers but are the product of a program designed at the highest level of the police department and affect hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of New Yorkers," Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Darius Charney explained in a prepared statement. "As a result of today’s ruling, all those for whom this practice is a daily reality will now have an opportunity to challenge it as a violation of their fundamental constitutional rights and to ask the Court to order real changes in NYPD stop-and-frisk policy."

A recent poll of New Yorkers by Quinnipiac University found that the NYPD has a 63 percent approval rating overall, but the stop-and-frisk searches are less popular, at 49 percent approval. Perhaps most telling: White New Yorkers overwhelmingly favored the searches, at 59 percent approval to 36 percent disapproval, whereas blacks and Latinos were strongly opposed, at 68 percent disapproval for blacks and 52 percent for Latinos.


Photo: Daryl Lang / Shutterstock.com.