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January 2023 - Episode 10

Reasonable Suspicion: The Case of Lance Rodriguez

In 2014, Lance Rodriguez was riding a bike around Queens, New York, when he was stopped by police.

Whether you know it or not, a very different legal precedent has been established for when police stop bike riders, versus when they stop drivers in motor vehicles.

Stopping and searching cyclists is just one way that Black and Brown Americans have had their mobility arrested. Today, we’re breaking down the arguments for why cyclists should have the same protection from police stops as people in cars.

Links:

bicycle and police car
Photo by Jeff Mendoza on Unsplash

Charles T. Brown:
In 2014, Lance Rodriguez was riding a bike around Queens, New York, when he was stopped by police. Lance had a gun on him and he was arrested and charged with criminal possession of a weapon.

At the trial, his defense attorney argued that the officer did not have probable cause to stop him. The judge said that since Mr. Rodriguez was on a bike, the officer didn’t need probable cause. All the officer needed was reasonable suspicion that he was armed with a weapon in order to stop him. Lance was convicted and sent to prison. He remains there to this day.

To be clear, I’m not arguing whether or not people should be allowed to possess or carry a weapon, legally or illegally. I want to focus on the lower constitutional standard that police currently have to pull over people on bikes versus the higher standard they need in order to pull over a driver in a car.

Whether you know it or not, a very different legal precedent has been established for when police stop bike riders. First is when they stop drivers in motor vehicles. If Lance had been in a car, the officer would have needed probable cause that he was engaged in a criminal activity before stopping him.

We know that police officers stop Black and Brown people more than they stop white people, in cars, on bikes, while walking down the street. In New York, NYPD’s stop and frisk program allows police to detain and search people if they have reasonable suspicion of a crime. At the height of this practice, in 2011, the NYPD stopped around 700,000 people that year, the vast majority of them being Black and Latino men and boys.

In 2013, the NYPD’s widespread application of stop and frisk was found to be unconstitutional in court. The number of stops reported in New York went down, but the practice has certainly continued.

Exhibit A. When Lance Rodriguez was stopped on his bike for reasonable suspicion, it was an extension of the same excessive discretion afforded to police officers in stop and frisk practices. The time has come to take this case back to court.

Stopping and searching cyclists is just one way that Black and Brown Americans have had their mobility arrested. Today we’re breaking down the arguments for why cyclists should have the same protection from police stops as people in cars.

I’m Charles T. Brown and this is Arrested Mobility. Thanks for joining us.

After Lance’s conviction, his attorney appealed the decision. Today, the case has reached the New York State Court of Appeals, which is the highest court in the state of New York.

I am joined by Daniel Lambright of the New York Civil Liberties Union. The NYCLU has submitted an amicus brief in support of Mr. Rodriguez’s case, arguing that bike stops should be treated by the law in the same way as car stops. The purpose of this brief is to offer legal advice and arguments to the court, even though the NYCLU are not directly involved in representing Lance.

I should also note that the NYCLU is being supported by a number of organizations, including my own firm, Equitable Cities.

Daniel Lambright:
Hi, I am Daniel Lambright. I’m a senior staff attorney at the New York ACLU, and I’m also special counsel for Criminal Justice litigation.

Charles T. Brown:
Tell me why the NYCLU took an interest in this case.

Daniel Lambright:
Yeah, so the NYCLU has a program where we kind of review the Court of Appeals docket and we see what the court’s taken and we look at cases to kind of become involved in.

We reviewed and saw that the Court of Appeals was taking this case called People v. Lance Rodriguez. What initially stood out to me was this notion of stop and frisk and the kind of connection that what happened here has to, kind of, our bigger work on stop and frisk, which in the late 90s and early 2000s, the NYPD developed a practice to stop primarily Black and Brown men on the streets and to frisk them.

That program led to, I think, 4.4 million people being stopped and frisked on the streets in New York City, and the vast majority of those people were Black and Brown. In 2013 or 2012, several lawsuits came about challenging the stop and frisk program.

My organization, NYCLU, along with Bronx Defenders and Latino Justice brought a lawsuit challenging the program at buildings enrolled in a program called TAP. Essentially these were private buildings that the NYPD were given authority by the landlords or owners to patrol, to just do interior patrols. What was happening was kind of in and around those buildings, officers were just stopping Black and Brown men with no suspicion whatsoever because they were near the buildings because they were Black or Brown, frisking them in a very aggressive manner.

We sued. We got a preliminary injunction, so the federal court stopped the NYPD from continuing that practice. This case implicated a lot of the issues that we’ve always cared about, and that I’ve cared about as a litigator, and really allowed us to talk about stops and the racial effects of that.

Charles T. Brown:
Why do you think Black and Brown men are targeted disproportionately in these stops?

Daniel Lambright:
Well, cops have racist assumptions about Black men being criminals. I think that that’s the most clear. This is throughout the history of policing, particularly in New York. There’s a famous quote that came up from Bloomberg, our former mayor, when he tried to run again saying that he believed that 95% of the murder suspects fit one profile, and that if you wanted to keep guns off the street, you needed to essentially throw a bunch of young Black men against the wall and frisk them for guns.

That’s this notion of Black criminality is where that comes from. And the thing that … I think the program would be unconstitutional anyway, but one of the fascinating things that the research showed about stop and frisk is that the hit rates, so the frisk that actually resulted in finding guns, was extremely low, and the hit rates were actually higher for the white people that they stopped and frisked. Again, officers are relying on these racist stereotypes that are divorced from reality.

Charles T. Brown:
And what do you say to those who say, “Well, if you look at violent crime in any city across America, even the data shows that a disproportionate amount of violent crime is committed by Black and Brown men. So police are just doing their job by policing where crime is happening.”

Daniel Lambright:
Yeah, I think that is kind of on a faulty assumption and faulty premise. You know, officers often use this kind of phrase, high crime neighborhood, and they use that to justify kind of doing more invasive actions on people. And in actuality, the data and the research shows that high crime area really just means minority area. It doesn’t mean that the neighborhood is actually a higher crime neighborhood.

Again, there’s kind of these racist assumptions as to who is committing crime in America that we really have to challenge.

We also, I think, have to challenge our notions of crime. When we think of who’s committing crime, we also don’t think of Wall Street as being a high crime neighborhood, when of course that is a high crime neighborhood. There’s tons of criminal activity going on in terms of insider trading, et cetera.

Charles T. Brown:
Daniel, you present three key arguments in the brief. The first one stated requiring a lower constitutional standard for cyclists will increase rampant racial profiling of Black and Brown cyclists by the police. Why was this important?

Daniel Lambright:
Sure. Here we argue that extensive research shows that when police officers have more discretion, they aggressively and disproportionately target communities of color. And to bolster this argument, we rely on data from Chicago, showing that 56% of all bike tickets were issued in predominantly Black neighborhoods, while only 18% were issued in white neighborhoods.

We rely on data from Long Beach showing that Black cyclists were 3.5 times more likely than white cyclists to be stopped for a suspected bike infraction in 2019. We rely on data from Los Angeles County showing that 70% of the 44,000 bike stops by the Sheriff’s office involved Latino cyclists. Similarly, in Tampa, 73.2% of the stops involve Black cyclists.

And also in New York City, there’s data showing that, for the first nine months of 2021, 75% of tickets for bike related infractions issued by the NYPD went to Black and Latino New Yorkers.

Again, the argument there is that the data shows that officers are using their discretion to stop people in a discriminatory manner, and that giving officers more discretion allows them to continue that same discrimination against Black and Brown cyclists.

Additionally, law enforcement agencies in New York specifically have a long history of engaging in racially disparate, low level encounters with New Yorkers. This is the stop and frisk program. From 2004 to 2012, 4.4 million stops occurred and nine out of those 10 people stopped were innocent, and the vast majority of those people stopped were Black and Brown.

The problem with the New York stop and frisk system was that officers were also masking the racially driven nature of the stops with these descriptions that people were acting in kind of suspicious ways, like they were making furtive movements, and they tried to justify their behaviors by claiming that people were doing these kind of largely innocuous things that they claimed were suspicious. That kind of gets officers off the hook when there’s a much lower standard and officers have more discretion to stop people.

Charles T. Brown:
The second argument stated, allowing police officers to pull over and stop cyclists without reasonable suspicion, risk alienating communities of color from participating in biking. Give us some background on this argument.

Daniel Lambright:
Again, there was much research done on why many people might not want to bike, and the kind of harassment that happens when people are stopped and frisked. People being stopped and frisked is not a de minimis thing. It’s not something that has no impact on people’s lives. It’s incredibly humiliating to be called to spread eagle and stand against the wall while an officer looks through and touches all parts of your body. That’s the type of harassment that actually prevents people of color and alienates people of color from biking. That’s even more alarming given the health benefits of biking and how much has gone into trying to get people to bike and the environmental benefits of biking. We want to obviously encourage Black and Brown people to engage in biking, and we want to encourage everyone to engage in biking and this is definitely … In a ruling from the court saying that people on bikes have less protection from police harassment counters that encouragement.

Charles T. Brown:
Finally, the third argument, police stops of moving bicycles significantly interfere with cyclist freedom of movement and therefore constitute seizures requiring reasonable suspicion.

Daniel Lambright:
The reason that cars are held to a higher standard is because courts have held that stopping cars creates a significant intrusion on the freedom of movement of people driving vehicles. In this portion of the argument, we argue that officers pulling over a cyclist creates as serious and as significant of an interruption of their liberty as they would for a car driver.

This is based on the fact that cyclists on roadways can move just as fast as cars and stop and go traffic and being kind of pulled over by police officers would require a significant amount of energy to safely stop and would significantly intrude upon the cyclist’s freedom of movement.

Charles T. Brown:
What do you ultimately hope to achieve by writing this brief?

Daniel Lambright:
Well, I ultimately hope that the court will recognize that there are racial implications from the court’s rulings and that they cannot just view their rulings, they cannot view criminal justice matters apart from the racial ramifications of their actions and the racial realities of policing. And that the court recognizes, when they give officers more discretion, officers abuse that discretion in racially disparate manners.

I hope that the court recognizes that and says that cyclists have the same rights as car drivers and have increased protections from police harassment.

Charles T. Brown:
What about the public? How do you want everyday people to respond to this work?

Daniel Lambright:
Yeah, I hope the public reevaluates how we think about policing. I hope the public thinks about ways in which we can create legislation to curb the discretion of officers and their ability to police in racially disparate manners. And I hope there’s a public movement to recognize that everything does not need a police solution and to make sure that we have less police involved in all parts of society.

Charles T. Brown:
Do you have any thoughts on police reform?

Daniel Lambright:
Certainly police reform is needed. There are many different parts of police reform that are needed. One, there needs to be stronger disciplining of police in cities. New York actually has civilian control of the disciplinary system to an extent, but cities that don’t have civilian control of the disciplinary system, that needs to happen, there needs to be civilian oversight, and there actually actually needs to be real punishments for officers who commit misconduct, including officers who stop people based on racial biases.

Additionally, we need less reliance on police. We need to not believe that the answer to every problem is to criminalize it and to throw people in prison for long sentences.

Charles T. Brown:
How optimistic are you that this type of practice, these discriminatory stops, can be ended wholesale?

Daniel Lambright:
That’s a really good, good question because we bring a whole bunch of lawsuits and let’s say … And lawsuits, many people think of lawsuits as money. If you’re injured, you can get money damages. But also courts have the ability to kind of give what’s known as injunctive relief, meaning that courts can order parties to take actions to prevent the harm from reoccurring, and that’s really what the ACLU and other kind of impact litigation firms do.

One of the things that we discovered, and one of the things kind of all civil rights groups discovered early on in the late 90s and early 2000s, was that you could win a lawsuit against the NYPD and the NYPD could agree to doing certain reforms and then not follow that.

This is what happened with the first kind of challenge to the NYPDs stop and frisk system, and the NYPD agreed to make all these changes, and they said, “We’re going to change our certain policies and do all of that.” And then it was revealed that the NYPD was still engaging in the stop and frisk policies.

I think that there’s always going to be an attempt by whatever group you’re litigating against to not comply. We just have to come up with more and more ways to ensure that they do comply with whatever changes that they’ve declared that they would make.

Charles T. Brown:
If the courts side with Mr. Rodriguez’s appeal, he may get a new trial, he might be released from prison, maybe some justice will be served. It would also be a win for the constitutional rights and protection of cyclists in New York and the country at large.

On the other hand, if the decision is overturned, it will only be one step to ending these discriminatory stops. We need to monitor the police, hold them accountable, and enact transformational change at the legislative level.

Maybe just as importantly, we need to shift the way that average Americans think about policing and public safety. But for now, we’ll take it one step at a time.

I want to thank my guest, Daniel Lambright. I appreciate your expertise and your time. I encourage listeners to check out the NYCLU’s podcast, Rights This Way. We’ll link to it in the show notes.

For Arrested Mobility, I am Charles T. Brown. I encourage you to follow me on social media @ctbrown1911 on Twitter or using #arrestedmobility. Visit our website and sign up for our email newsletter at arrestedmobility.com. You can follow Arrested Mobility on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.

This podcast is a production of Equitable Cities with support from Puddle Creative.