By Basil Katz
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The broadest legal challenge to the New York Police Department's controversial crime-fighting tactic known as "stop and frisk" will head to trial in March, a U.S. judge ruled on Monday.
The case stems from a class action lawsuit filed in 2008 by four black men claiming they were improperly targeted by police because of their race.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan granted class action status to the lawsuit in March, saying the plaintiffs had established their cases were emblematic of a city-wide problem.
The City promptly appealed her decision and the NYPD has strongly defended the tactic, arguing it has been critical in taking guns off the streets and achieving an historic drop in crime rates. The police deny that race or quotas motivate stops and say they are stopping people considered suspicious.
At Monday's hearing, the judge said the case had dragged on long enough and noted that the March 18, 2013 trial would be more than five years since the case was first filed.
Darius Charney, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, told the judge Monday that the plaintiffs had not yet decided whether to ask for a bench trial or whether they would seek to present their case to a jury.
Judge Scheindlin is also overseeing two other separate lawsuits contesting the NYPD tactic.
(Reporting By Basil Katz; editing by Andrew Hay)