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'Broken windows' quotas end with $75 mln for wrongfully prosecuted

A federal judge has approved a $75-million settlement in a class-action lawsuit brought against New York City after the NYPD issued hundreds of thousands of criminal summonses, regardless of the legal justification, in order to make quotas. The practice, part of the NYPD's "broken windows" approach, disproportionately affected minorities and may be unconstitutional.

The settlement includes an agreement by the NYPD to reaffirm the principle that quotas violate department policy. This includes production quotas for summonses, traffic and pedestrian stops, and arrests.

Before the settlement, the NYPD had been issuing minor summonses as part of an approach to policing put in place during the Giuliani administration. "Broken windows" policing aims to strictly enforce quality-of-life ordinances, such as those against public drinking and disorderly conduct. The idea is that neighborhoods seem to fare better overall when landowners keep up appearances, such as by fixing broken windows promptly. Therefore, it was thought that strict enforcement of these minor offenses would create an environment in which crime was less acceptable.

Unfortunately, in practice it allowed unconscious bias by police officers to enter into decisions about who was to be hassled, summoned and charged for minor violations. The addition of production quotas put pressure on officers to find violators and issue summonses. Not every summons was legally appropriate. Combined with the fact that minorities were more likely to receive a summons, the situation became a pervasive problem.

The settlement involves about 900,000 summonses that were issued without probable cause and have since been dismissed. They were issued between May 2007 and December 2015. Claimants can file to receive a maximum of $150 per incident out of a total fund of $56.5 million. An additional $18.5 million will be paid to the plaintiffs' law firms.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people in all U.S. jurisdictions from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. That has been held to apply, with varying levels of strictness, to searches of a person or property, traffic and pedestrian stops, and arrests.

"The rights of all citizens will be fortified through what has been represented as the largest settlement of Fourth Amendment claims in New York City history," wrote the judge in his order.

The plaintiffs' attorneys hope the settlement will advance better policing in the city.

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