By Basil Katz
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A lawsuit by a group of black and Latino New York City public housing residents who say police violated their civil rights may proceed to trial, a judge ruled on Thursday.
The case, filed in 2010, is one of three proposed class action lawsuits before Manhattan Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin. All three suits say the New York Police Department's controversial crime-fighting tactic known as "stop and frisk" improperly targets minorities.
The plaintiffs argue that their encounters with police are representative of a systemic problem, and that the case should be granted class action status to encompass the 400,000 mostly non-white, New York public housing residents.
The NYPD has strongly defended the tactic, arguing it has been critical in taking guns off the streets and achieving a historic drop in crime rates. The police deny that race or quotas motivate stops and say they are stopping people considered suspicious.
In an opinion on Thursday, Scheindlin denied the city's bid to toss claims by eight individual plaintiffs who claim they were unlawfully stopped, searched or arrested by police patrolling New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings.
A ninth plaintiff, Eleanor Britt, was never stopped or arrested, but alleged her rights had been violated.
"It is an important first step because the court is clearly rejecting the city's claims that there is no basis for litigating the lawsuit," said Steven Banks, chief lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, which helped bring the case.
The judge did not allow all of the plaintiffs' claims to proceed, tossing out some discrimination claims and refusing to rule on other issues at this time.
"That some claims made by tenants and their guests regarding how the NYPD patrols NYCHA buildings were not dismissed does not mean that such patrols are indeed unlawful or that the NYPD's measures to insure that they are lawful are inadequate," city attorney Brenda Cooke said in a statement.
In her opinion, Scheindlin said the case raises questions "involving matters of grave public concern." She questioned whether police officers, in their zeal to provide protection, are "violating the rights of the very residents (and guests) whom they seek to protect?"
The judge also found that a NYCHA sign that notifies residents and visitors that "trespassing and loitering" in the "lobby, roof, hallway and stairs" is prohibited is unconstitutionally vague because, if read literally, it also would prohibit activities that are perfectly innocent, such as waiting for a taxi to arrive.
The city said it disagreed with the judge's analysis.
(Reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Edith Honan and Lisa Shumaker)