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Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Rap-Quoting Judge Preps Housing Patrol Trial

MANHATTAN (CN) - A federal judge cited Jay-Z, noted rapper and legal philosopher, in a footnote to her order approving a lawsuit challenging New York City's practice of sending "vertical patrols" of police to search public housing residents.

"In one of his most popular songs, the rapper Jay-Z - who grew up in NYCHA's Marcy Houses in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn - showcased his knowledge of these Fourth Amendment rights," U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin wrote in a footnote of her recent order.

She cited a St. Louis University School of Law Prof. Caleb Mason's paper "Jay-Z's '99 Problems,' Verse 2: A Close Reading of the Fourth Amendment Guidance for Cops and Perps."

Mason's 20-page essay applies critical legal theory to the song's second stanza, which goes, "The year is '94 and in my trunk is raw / In my rearview mirror is the motherfucking law."

"Jay-Z was transporting drugs in his car, like many of the protagonists who populate the core cases of Fourth Amendment law," the professor noted in the paper.

Unlike the rapper, 18 public housing residents and visitors claimed in their federal lawsuit that they were doing nothing wrong when police stopped them.

They sued the city two years ago on various charges, seeking court-mandated reforms to the program and money damages.

While half of the plaintiffs settled, the other nine cases got a boost on Thursday in an 84-page order approving several of their claims.

One of the plaintiffs, Eleanor Britt, is described in a vignette toward the beginning of the ruling.

"Britt, a sixty-four year old African-American woman, has lived in NYCHA housing for more than thirty-five years," the order states. "Like generations of NYCHA residents before her, she is a member of an anti-crime tenant organization. She testified at her deposition that she would like the police to conduct more vertical patrols through her building, because 'it helps us keep the building safe ... [T]he more their presence is seen, the less problems we would have.'"

"But Britt has also witnessed serious police misconduct," Scheindlin added.

Britt testified in a deposition, "I have seen the police approach young men in the building and I have seen them just grab them and thrown them up against the wall and frisk them ... [I]t seems like there is a disparity in the way they deal with Black as opposed to White ... [I]t is a little excessive when they are dealing with people of color."

She and her co-plaintiffs hope to secure class action status next year.

Meanwhile, city lawyer Brenda Cooke highlighted that some of the residents' claims were dismissed, in a statement.

"The City is dedicated to ensuring that all NYCHA residents are safe and secure in their homes," Cooke said. "Today's ruling, which dismissed several plaintiffs' claims, including claims of unlawful conduct by the NYPD and claims brought by unauthorized NYCHA tenants, is consistent with that commitment."

She added that the city will have the opportunity to chip away at the remaining claims in the future, and that the department disagreed with the judge's analysis of the subject loitering.

Johanna Steinberg, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs through the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, praised the "very important and significant decision."

"We want to make sure that there's meaningful and transparent reform to make sure that the police are accountable to the residents that they serve," she told Courthouse News in a phone interview.

Steinberg said that she also saw the judge's reference to Jay-Z's time at Marcy Houses.

"I hope that he would see [the ruling] as a step forward for other public housing residents like himself," she said.

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