Federal Appeals Court Rules in Racial Profiling Case

May 10, 2005

DETROIT— A federal court today ruled that there is enough evidence of racial discrimination and illegal searches by a suburban Detroit police department to take the case to a jury, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan which argued the appeal of a racial profiling lawsuit filed in 2001.

“The ruling today is a clear sign that the court will not tolerate race-based discrimination and reinforces the constitutional principle that people cannot be searched by police in the absence of evidence of criminal activity,” said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. “What happened to these children is unconscionable.”

What has become known as the “bicycling while black” case was filed on behalf of 21 young African-American men who were stopped by the Eastpointe police officers while riding their bikes. The legal challenge to the racial profiling practice began after a 1996 memorandum instructed officers to investigate any black youths riding through Eastpointe, a predominantly white city. The children represented were pulled over, questioned, searched and some of their bikes confiscated and sold. Police logs and reports in Eastpointe, a suburb of Detroit formerly known as East Detroit, identified over 100 incidents between 1995 and 1998 in which African American youths, ages 11-18, were detained. 

The case before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals included charges in eleven incidents. Though each incident was decided separately by the judges, in the majority of the incidents, the appeals court reversed the district court decision in favor of the officers. The appellate court indicated that pat-down searches, hand-cuffs, seizing the bicycles, and detention in the back seat of a police car are unreasonable and unconstitutional.

In the three-judge panel opinion, Judge Boyce F. Martin, Jr., wrote, “We are compelled to comment here, however, that we are both frustrated and concerned with what appears to be consistent disregard for basic Fourth Amendment principles by the Easpointe Police Department and its officers, and an apparent misunderstanding by counsel as to the legal requirements for Terry stops. Counsel may shout ‘officer safety’ until blue-in-the-face, but the Fourth Amendment does not tolerate, nor has the Supreme Court or this Court ever condoned pat-down searches without some specific and articulable facts to warrant a reasonable officer in the belief that the person detained was armed and dangerous.”

In one incident one of the boys had recently received his bike as a birthday present from his father. In spite of the fact that a search of the LIEN system found that the bike had not been stolen, the officers seized the bike, failed to investigate the incident any further, and sold it at a police auction.

The court’s opinion stated, “The officers essentially reversed the onus under the Fourth Amendment and placed the burden on the youths to demonstrate that the bikes were not stolen, whereas the burden…is on law enforcement to justify its intrusions. It is not up to individuals to demonstrate the absence of criminal activity…”

In another incident, five youths, four of them Black, were stopped by the officers. Only the Black youths were detained in the backseat of the police car. The court found that they could see no facts to warrant this action. “[t]he officers were not dealing with a nervous and jittery motorist who could step on the gas at any second and flee at high speeds, but rather the officers were approaching children on bicycles.”

According to the lawsuit, one young man was “escorted” back across Eight Mile and another was called a “nigger” and told to “get your black ass out of that car and pick that piece of paper up, because you’re not at home.”

The court further noted that there was “weak justification for the detention of the four youths (in addition to the obvious problem with detaining only the African-American youths).”

“This is victory for a community that has long been embroiled in a saga of racial tension between the residents of Detroit living near predominantly white suburbs,” added Moss.

ACLU cooperating attorney, Mark Finnegan, and ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg litigated the case in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The ACLU joined the case as co-counsel in the suit previously filed by Charles Chomet.

Click Here to read the Appeals Court decision.

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