Darius Charney, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, sat with some of his colleagues at a table in the nonprofit's Greenwich Village headquarters Monday. Behind Charney were several of the plaintiffs who had recently testified at trial in support of CCR claims that the New York City Police Department was engaged in a pattern of racial profiling and unwarranted stop-and-frisk questioning of New York residents. In front of him sat a throng of reporters and photographers eager to get Charney's reaction to Manhattan federal district court judge Shira Sheindlin's ruling that the city's stop-and-frisk practices did indeed violate the U.S. Constitution's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, as the CCR had claimed.
Charney—who, as the lead CCR attorney in the litigation, examined two dozen witnesses during the two-month trial—praised Scheindlin and the plaintiffs who had come forward to tell their stories. "The city must now stop denying the problem and partner with the community to create a police department that protects the safety and respects the rights of all New Yorkers," he said a statement issued by the CCR later that day. (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg reacted a bit differently, calling the ruling "dangerous," accusing Scheindlin of not understanding "how policing works." The city said it would file its appeal of the decision and the installation of an independent monitor Friday. )
In reflecting on the case, Charney, 40, noted that the police department was finally being called to account for its actions 14 years after the CCR first challenged them. For Charney, though, the road to Monday's ruling goes back even further—and all the way to New Orleans, where he once worked as a special education teacher.
It was there, in the middle and high school classrooms and hallways of the city's hard-pressed Ninth Ward, that Charney's legal career began. In 1995 the California native had taken a job at George Washington Carver High School teaching low-income minority students with learning disabilities. He thought he was starting a career that would allow him to focus his energy on improving public education in urban neighborhoods. Early on, however, he ran up against what he calls "huge structural issues" related to to his students' interactions with the criminal justice system. He says he soon realized that as a teacher, his power to institute change was limited.
"I remember that several of my students were in the [juvenile court system] and that impacted their ability to participate in scholastic sports and led to them not finishing school or not getting a job," he says. "I saw how the criminal justice system was really hindering and frustrating my students' ability to be successful educationally. I wanted to work on making the education system more equitable and leveling the playing field. I couldn't really do it as a teacher, so I saw the law as a way to do it."
Charney's role in the stop-and-frisk case was in some ways a matter of happenstance. The CCR had first alleged that city police were engaging in racial profiling in a suit filed in 1999. That case ended four years later with the police department agreeing to disband its infamous Street Crimes Unit and provide comprehensive stop-and-frisk data to the CCR and the New York City Council every quarter through the start of 2007.
After deciding that the data it was receiving showed police making little progress in reducing racial profiling, the CCR brought its second stop-and-frisk suit, Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, alleging that officers were disproportionately targeting minorities. Days before the suit was filed in January 2008, Charney joined the CCR's racial justice and government misconduct group. After graduating from the UC Berkeley School of Law, an associate stint at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, a clerkship for Manhattan federal district court judge Deborah Batts, and two years at civil rights firm Lanser & Kubitschek, the former teacher was in the thick of a class action that would become the broadest legal challenge ever mounted against a law enforcement tactic allegedly used to single out blacks and Hispanics illegally and systematically.
"It's one of those things that when you're in law school, you think, 'Wow, I dream of being able to work on one of those landmark cases,' " Charney says, "but you never seriously think it will happen."
The Floyd case always seemed like a long shot to make it to trial. And even if the plaintiffs did get their day in court, Charney says, winning such "large-impact civil rights" cases is difficult. The prospects for success improved in August 2011, when Scheindlin, denying the city's motion for summary judgment, determined that "it is deeply troubling if thousands of New Yorkers are being stopped each year without reasonable suspicion, and even more troubling if African American and Latino New Yorkers are being singled out for such treatment."
In another key decision that went in the CCR's favor ahead of trial, Scheindlin ruled that city lawyers could not introduce as evidence statistics showing that the stop-and-frisk policy had helped reduce crime. "Permitting the parties to delve into the question of whether the stop and frisk program actually reduces crime . . . would risk turning the trial into a policy debate over the wisdom of the program rather than a judicial proceeding that assesses plaintiffs' constitutional claims," Scheindlin wrote in the August 2012 decision.
When the two-month trial finally got under way, Charney noted in his opening statement that while the statistical data at the heart of the case was illuminating—83 percent of the police department's stops between 2004 and 2012 involved blacks and Hispanics, though members of those minority groups make up just about half of city residents—the case was also about people.
"The NYPD has laid siege to black and Latino neighborhoods in the city over the past eight years, tossing the requirements of the Fourth Amendment out the window, in favor of what the department and defendants' experts call proactive policing tactics," he told the judge and an overflowing courtroom of spectators. "But what the NYPD calls proactive, black and Latino residents of the city have far too often experienced as arbitrary, unnecessary, and unconstitutional harassment."
Testimony from 104 witnesses—including the four named plaintiffs, and eight class members—followed. Each plaintiff described being unfairly stopped by police while doing everyday tasks, such as unlocking a door or shopping at a bodega. Scheindlin also heard police department brass defend their crime-fighting efforts and insist that stop-and-frisk practices did not disproportionately target minorities. Throughout the proceedings, police officials maintained that the statistical variance between the group composed of those stopped and the city's overall demographic makeup was directly related to the disproportionate percentage of crimes committed by minorities.
On the trial's last day, Jonathan Moore of Beldock, Levine & Hoffman, a member of the plaintiffs legal team who had worked on the CCR's first stop-and-frisk case, argued that the police department could not correct its allegedly discriminatory procedures without an outside monitor. Gretchen Hoff Varner from Covington & Burling, which served as cocounsel on a pro bono basis, zeroed in on the testimony of the 12 CCR plaintiffs to support the contention that in every instance the police lacked the requisite suspicion to make the stops in question. (Covington, which had previously worked with the CCR on cases related to detainees at Guantánamo Bay, joined the case shortly after the CCR filed its 2008 complaint and handled many of the case's statistical aspects. The firm's lead attorney on the case, counsel Eric Hellerman, led the examination of the plaintiffs' main statistical expert at trial.)
In his closing, Charney picked up Hoff Varner's thread, saying that what had happened to each of the plaintiffs "was part of a citywide pattern and practice of suspicion less and race-based stops and frisks which the NYPD officers have continued to engage in over the last nine years."
The city's vow to appeal notwithstanding, Scheindlin's ruling—bolstered by the appointment of Arnold & Porter partner Peter Zimroth as an independent monitor responsible for ensuring that the city reforms its approach to stop-and-frisk—lays the groundwork for an end to that pattern and practice. In Charney's mind, it's also the ultimate vindication of his decision to switch careers.
"To take this case all the way to trial, and to win—at least for now—is something I never imagined happening when I went into legal profession," he says. "I must have done something really good in an earlier life to get this lucky."