Is the New York Police Department Illegally Stopping Drivers?

The New York Police Department faces a class-action lawsuit alleging its highway patrol officers conduct illegal traffic stops. Lucas Jackson/ Reuters

Cops in Queens, New York, are using renegade traffic checkpoints to illegally arrest drivers, a new class-action lawsuit alleges.

The federal suit slams the New York Police Department and the city with allegations that the NYPD's Highway Patrol unit, which is within the department's Transportation Bureau, routinely sets up unregulated traffic checkpoints in the borough of Queens where officers stop motorists without reasonable suspicion. Because the checkpoint system "involves unconstitutionally seizing, questioning, and searching drivers without any legal basis, and illegally detaining, falsely arresting, and maliciously prosecuting them," the suit claims, it violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

The civil suit, filed October 28 by the Legal Aid Society, law firm Beldock, Levine and Hoffman, and the firm Fisher, Byrialsen and Kreizer, further charges that these checkpoints have flourished because the NYPD is "failing" to properly train and supervise its officers.

According to the lawsuit, officers set up these checkpoints on service ramps, where marked and unmarked NYPD vehicles, "including vehicles designed as taxi cabs," are parked so they "protrude into the roadway," requiring drivers to brake to avoid hitting the cop cars or other drivers. When a motorist does come to a stop, the suit says, officers will approach and ask general questions, such as the driver's name, and then more pointed questions, such as whether the driver has been drinking—without having reasonable suspicion to justify this questioning.

The lawsuit claims that officers conducting these stops act with near impunity, that "there is no supervisory oversight over the enforcement of the checkpoint stops [and that] individual officers conducting the stops have complete discretion to stop vehicles as they choose." And, the suit charges, officers don't record stop information on NYPD-issued forms, meaning there's no paper trail for oversight purposes.

In the lawsuit, the lawyers said these stops do not meet the legal requirements for traffic checkpoints that ensure civil rights are being upheld. Legal checkpoints, they say, are "carried out pursuant to a plan embodying explicit, neutral limitations on the conduct of individual officers so that the stops are not the result of unconstrained officer discretion and that shops are recorded in a manner that allows for meaningful 'post-stop review.'" In other words, they say cops are stopping whomever they want for whatever reason they want, without documentation, and potentially violating the Constitution's 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of the law.

While the lawyers say many drivers have been stopped multiple times at these checkpoints, the experience of Winston McLennon, who is the named as the lead plaintiff in the class action, exemplifies what can happen to individual motorists at one of these stops.

Just before 3 a.m. on October 28, 2011, McLennon was driving on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens when he neared a ramp to the Long Island Expressway. McLennon, who has a clean record, did not know the taxicab on the ramp was an NYPD checkpoint because there weren't any signs or cones, as is routine with these specific checkpoints, the lawsuit says.

An officer told McLennon to get out of his vehicle and gave him a portable Breathalyzer test. McLennon was then taken to the 112th Precinct, where he exhaled into another Breathalyzer and was eventually brought to Central Booking (it's not known if he failed either test). McLennon says he "learned for the first time" he faced traffic charges when he got to arraignment later that day. Though McLennon was released, he had to appear in court multiple times. The case was dismissed and sealed for more than a year later, but the ordeal nevertheless cost McLennon his job, he says in the court filings.

Muriel Goode-Trufant, special federal litigation chief for the New York City Law Department, tells Newsweek in an e-mail, "We will review the allegations in the complaint."

Queens Criminal Court judges have ruled against these checkpoints on multiple occasions. Judges there have dismissed at least five DUI cases stemming from these checkpoints, including McLennon's, saying they are unconstitutional, according to the lawsuit and a New York report.

"The law requires checkpoints to conform to exacting protocols and record-keeping requirements. This is to ensure that checkpoints—which involve stopping people without suspicion of wrongdoing—are conducted in a safe, respectful, non-discriminatory, and non-arbitrary manner. The NYPD has regulations spelling out these specific requirements," the attorneys representing McLennon and others say in a statement to Newsweek. "Despite persistent judicial rebuke, these illegal checkpoint operations continue. The NYPD, instead of ending a practice that judges repeatedly have found to be unconstitutional, has publicly commended it.

"As a consequence, the Legal Aid Society, Beldock, Levine and Hoffman, and Fisher, Byrialsen and Kreizer have brought this litigation to end this illegal police operation, and to demand that the NYPD conduct highway checkpoint stops according to the law," the statement says.