By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge has approved New York City's $75 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit accusing its police department of issuing hundreds of thousands of criminal summonses without legal justification to meet quotas.
The decision made public on Monday by U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet in Manhattan ends seven years of litigation over a practice that the plaintiffs' lawyers said was unconstitutional and disproportionately harmed minorities.
Summonses had typically been issued for minor offenses, such as disorderly conduct and drinking alcohol in public, as part of a "broken windows" approach to policing quality-of-life concerns that the New York Police Department adopted in the 1990s.
The NYPD agreed in the settlement to reaffirm that quotas for summonses, arrests and stops violated department policy.
Summons filings in the city's criminal court fell every year from 2010, when the lawsuit began, to 2015, city data show.
"It took a landmark-type of settlement to correct what had been a pervasive problem," Stephen Neuwirth, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan representing the plaintiffs, said in an interview.
Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the city's law department, said: "The parties will move forward to execute the agreement."
The settlement covers roughly 900,000 NYPD summonses issued from May 2007 to December 2015, and later dismissed essentially because officers lacked probable cause.
It sets aside $56.5 million for claimants, with a maximum of $150 per incident, with unclaimed funds reverting to the city.
Another $18.5 million will go to the plaintiffs' law firms: Quinn Emanuel; Cohen & Fitch, and the office of Jon Norinsberg.
In granting final approval, Sweet said the settlement advanced the public policy toward enforcing civil rights laws.
He overruled objections that the accord was too small and released too many claims.
"This civil rights class action is the paradigm of change and progress achievable in a society undergirded by the rule of law," the judge wrote. "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."
The U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Joshua Fitch, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an interview that the litigation has led to better policing and greater NYPD communication with the public.
"It shifts the department's perspective from 'broken windows' and statistics, to a focus on communities and fighting crime," he said.
The case is Stinson et al v City of New York, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 10-04228.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Frances Kerry)