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Thursday, July 22, 2010

This Stop-and-Frisk Supporter Is For The Birds

New York Governor David Paterson recently signed a bill preventing the police from keeping records of those whom it stops and frisks but does not arrest.  This anti-records law makes eminent sense, because it recognizes the risk to the innocent from guilt-by-association and guilt-by-implication which is present from the very existence of records which can taint people and create a harm without necessarily having any outweighing benefit.  Paterson recognizes (or seems to) that the sanctity of the reputations of innocent people are dependent upon the obedience of those in authority to applicable rules and laws, and that the more records there are, the more this dependence grows.  Such obedience can never be achieved on a 100% basis, thus resulting in at least some risk of reputational damage to the innocent. 

Police records of when the innocent are stopped and searched have the potential to violate the rights -- and sensibilities -- of those innocent people.  A record of an innocent person's encounters with the police is probative of nothing about the citizen, except, perhaps, his skin color or perception of his neighborhood as a "bad area."   There is another risk from such records -- they exist and remain in cyberspace to be accessed by those with legitimate access (i.e. law enforcement) as well as hackers.  These records of innocents' encounters with the cops may severely tarnish or destroy their reputations and leave them vulnerable to future reputational extortion.  Yet these records will be predictive of little or no future criminal behavior. 
It is troubling to hear that a segment of the political / civic leadership class believes that it is the duty of the citizen to not merely be law-abiding, but to consent and submit to such random, intrusive searches by the police.  Especially troubling is that one of these people is former New York City Parks Commissioner and City Councilman Henry Stern, who penned this article expressing his willingness to submit to police stop-and-frisk procedures and arguing for the need for these records to be kept.
Henry Stern's misguided approach turns the fundamental American principle of "innocent unless proven guilty" on its head, and into the de facto principle of "guilty unless proven innocent."  He also is willing to sacrifice liberty for safety. 
As Benjamin Franklin once remarked, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liiberty nor safety."  Stern may be willing to give up his own liberty, but his perspective is warped.  Stern has to know that an elderly white man is very unlikely to be stopped and frisked by the New York Police Department, for any reason.  But a white teenager may be; Henry Stern fifty years ago may have been thrown up against a wall.  (I'm sure the younger Stern would have immediately sought a lawyer to seek redress.)  And minority adults, teenagers and even young children are routinely stopped and frisked -- and worse, if the anecdotal evidence is true -- and can quickly get the impression (and reinforced by those around them including the less than savory elements) that the police are more to be feared than looked to for help.
Paterson's new law will do much to protect the fundamental rights of New York's young, defenseless and innocent.  Above all, it recognizes the danger which random records can have, if they fall into the wrong hands.  Bravo. 
Eric Dixon is a New York lawyer.  He may be reached at 917-696-2442 or for further comment. 

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