In an interim order issued Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, the New York Police Department is required to immediately halt its controversial "stop and frisk" policy unless officers have a specific cause to initiate a search.

The ruling comes ahead of a full trial for two lawsuits filed by blacks and Latinos living in the Bronx who say the policy makes them feel like second-class citizens.

"While it may be difficult to say when precisely to draw the line between constitutional and unconstitutional police encounters such a line exists, and the NYPD has systematically crossed it when making trespass stops outside buildings," the judge wrote.

Critics of the policy, who've long been vocal about wanting to see "stop and frisk" ended, say it has caused vastly more searches of racial minorities, even though statistics do not support the theory that they pose more of a threat to public safety.

Instead, the policy saw searches skyrocket more than 600 percent since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, according to NYPD data. As a result, police made significantly more small drug possession arrests thanks to the random searches, and a disproportionate percentage have consistently been racial minorities.

In a ruling in mid-2012 that approved a class action lawsuit over the policy, Judge Scheindlin observed as much, writing (PDF) that out of 2.8 million "stop and frisk" searches from 2004 through 2009, "over fifty percent of those stops were of Black people and thirty percent were of Latinos, while only ten percent were of Whites."

In her ruling Tuesday, the judge was even more resolute. "For those of us who do not fear being stopped as we approach or leave our own homes or those of our friends and families, it is difficult to believe that residents of one of our boroughs live under such a threat," she wrote. "In light of the evidence presented at the hearing, however, I am compelled to conclude that this is the case."

Her order does not require the department to rewrite its policy, only that officers establish reasonable suspicion before initiating a search. Further rulings on two related lawsuits are expected in the coming weeks.

“With today’s ruling, the federal court has stated loudly and clearly that a major part of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program is unconstitutional and that the time has come for the courts to order a halt to illegal stops,” New York Civil Liberties Union Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn told CBS New York. “If New York City has any sense, it will use this ruling as an opportunity to start a wholesale reform of stop and frisk.”

Allowing officers to "stop and frisk" people they think may be engaged in illegal activity has been the city's policy since 1964.


Photo: David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons.